HAVANA (Reuters) - Leading outfielder Frederich Cepeda has become the first player from the Cuban baseball league to sign for a Japanese professional team since the communist government relaxed its player rules last year.
The 34-year-old Cepeda, who has played in three World Classics, is set to travel to Tokyo next month after signing a one-year contract with the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Central League, Cuban state Radio Rebelde said on Saturday.
“I‘m looking forward to playing baseball, working hard and getting good results,” Cepeda told the radio station in a telephone interview.
“I‘m going to a different league, a different culture in which I‘m going to immerse myself,” added the switch hitter, who gave no details of the deal.
“During the national series, the (Japanese) team’s manager (Tatsunori Hara) saw me playing here as an outfielder. It was his decision (to sign me).”
The Castro government relaxed its rules in September on players leaving Cuba to play professionally abroad. After Fidel Castro took power in the 1959 revolution, professional sport was banned in Cuba in 1961.
“Up to now, officially the only signing with Japanese baseball is mine,” Cepeda said, but added that others could end up going to Japan, China or (South) Korea.
“(Cepeda) really was a player we had to keep our eye on, he’s a great addition to our club,” Hara told Saturday’s issue of the Japanese newspaper Nikkan Sport.
During 17 seasons playing for the local Sancti Spiritus team, Cepeda, an Olympic gold medal winner with Cuba at the 2004 Athens Games, had a batting average of .329 with 269 home runs.
The Cuban government’s new policy allows its sportsmen and women to be paid. The policy is aimed at combatting defections of top Cubans, mainly baseball players, who have sought riches in the U.S. major leagues.
One of the first to move abroad officially last year was 27-year-old Alfredo Despaigne who plays for Campeche Pirates in Mexico.
Omar Linares, while in his late 30s, spent three seasons between 2002 and 2004 with Japan’s Chunichi Dragons with special government permission after a brilliant career with the Cuban national team.
Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Writing by Rex Gowar in Buenos Aires. Editing by Gene Cherry