Young Cuban ballplayers dream of U.S. major leagues

Aug 4 (Reuters) - Cuban 8-year-old Kevin Kindelan, a hot-handed shortstop for a Central Havana junior league baseball team and teammate and first baseman Leoni Venego, 7, both dream of stardom.

Kindelan says he wants to play for Cuba’s national baseball club, but Venego, recovering his composure after a big swing and a miss during a recent practice session, admits he’s set his sights on a bigger prize.

"I want to get to the Major Leagues and be like Yuli Gurriel," he said, referring to a Cuban all-star first-baseman for the Houston Astros, a baseball team in the United States, Cuba’s long-time rival to the north.

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Success in baseball, Cuba’s national past time and a favorite pursuit of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, is increasingly measured beyond its borders. That mirrors a broader exodus of Cubans from the stagnating communist-run island racked by social and economic crisis.

Cuba´s economy shrank 11% in 2020 and has only inched upward since, official figures show, plagued by the pandemic and further throttled by the United States' Cold War-era embargo. Long lines for food, medicine and fuel are the norm, driving a nearly unprecedented exodus of more than 157,000 Cubans to the United States since October, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.

"In the past six years the number of baseball players that have left the country has also tripled compared with the decade between 2000 and 2010," said Francis Romero, a Cuban baseball expert and book author who lives in Florida. "No baseball league...could survive that."

And many young players are no longer as motivated by communist ideology or love of country, Romero told Reuters, a force that for decades helped drive Cubans to great achievements including gold medals in baseball in Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996 and Athens in 2004.

"Players once waited a long time to emigrate, to prove themselves. Now they leave at 16 or 17 years of age," he said.

"Many of the Cuban players are no longer aligned with the ideology or the politics of the government." BIG LEAGUE DREAMS

At the "Ponton" ballfield in central Havana, with its muddy infield and weed-shrouded foul lines, some of Cuba´s youngest players train, taking their first excited swings, playing catch and slapping hands.

But no one - not even these children - escapes the impact of Cuba´s grinding economic crisis - or the draw of migration, says youth coach Irakly Chirino, a former player in Cuba´s national league who began his career at Ponton.

"Here, we don´t have gloves, bats, shoes, or even balls to play with...and when we do, they are too expensive," Chirino told Reuters on the sidelines of a late-spring practice.

Lack of supplies has led once avid ballplayers to the less gear-intensive sport of soccer, the favorite elsewhere in Latin America, or to dream of playing abroad from a younger age, Chirino said.

"Let´s not fool ourselves...we´re losing our best ballplayers before they even make it to the national series," he said.

That is a bittersweet reality for coach Nicolas Reyes, 73, who has seen more than a dozen of his "alumni" sign contracts in leagues outside Cuba.

"They started with me and now they´re in the U.S Major Leagues. It makes me proud," he said.

But he acknowledges the draw of fame and fortune increasingly trumps love of country.

"When I played, it wasn´t like that. You would never betray your country." STAY HOME

Juan Reinaldo Pérez, president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, told Reuters the continuing pipeline of talent - including those that leave Cuba - still fuels hope for the future of Cuban baseball.

"We are a country with a baseball tradition and that continues to grow," he told Reuters.

Cuba´s limited resources, he says, now focus on keeping budding ballplayers from leaving.

In May, the Cuban federation inked a deal with World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) that makes formal the right of Cubans to contract with professional leagues across the globe, without needing to abandon their home or nationality.

A similar deal, inked with Major League Baseball in the United States in 2018, would have granted Cubans the same right. Snuffed out by U.S. President Donald Trump before it could be implemented, many Cubans with big league aspirations felt they had little choice but to leave.

That lack of such a deal continues to be a major hurdle to keeping talent at home, says Guillermo Carmona, manager of Cuba's Industriales team told Reuters.

"Without a doubt, {that deal} was a great motivation {for our players}," said Carmona. "Now, many have left us."

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Reporting by Nelson Acosta; editing by Dave Sherwood and Diane Craft

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