Cuba back in Caribbean Series of baseball after 54-year absence

Fri Jan 31, 2014 10:56am EST
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By Daniel Trotta

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba returns to the Caribbean Series of baseball for the first time in 54 years this weekend at a time of time of high interest in Cuban talent after some of its best players defected in recent years in search of multimillion-dollar contracts.

The Cuban team Villa Clara, reinforced with some of the best players from other teams in the Cuban league, will compete on the Venezuelan island of Margarita starting on Saturday against winter league champions from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Mexico in the annual tournament.

The Cuban Baseball Federation is eager to find venues to prove its players can compete on the world stage, especially since the Olympics dropped baseball as a sport after the 2008 Games.

"Since their entire baseball enterprise is built around showcasing the quality of their game in the international arena, these tournaments mean a lot," said Peter Bjarkman, a leading expert on Cuban baseball and author of several books on the topic.

In one of the many reforms instituted by Cuban President Raul Castro since he took over for his ailing older brother Fidel in 2008, Cuba this year starting allowing its athletes to play professional sports abroad, while also offering them slightly better pay incentives at home.

Scouts for Major League Baseball teams will also get a look at some of Cuba's best prospects with Cuban players very much in fashion. In October, the Chicago White Sox signed Cuban slugger Jose Dariel Abreu to a six-year, $68 million contract.

His stock rose with the recent success of other Cuban defectors.

Pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins won National League Rookie of the year in 2013, and outfielder Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers finished second. In the American League, Oakland A's outfielder Yoenis Cespedes finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting in 2012.   Continued...