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MLB Network Presents: Cuba, Island of Baseball

Screening tonight at 7pm on the MLB Network, is a documentary looking at the history of Cuba and baseball.

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President Obama Attends Tampa Bay Devil Rays v Cuban National Team Baseball Game In Havana Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It’s complicated.

That’s probably what I’d take away from the documentary, which covers the relationship between major-league baseball and Cuba since the ascent of Fidel Castro in 1959. Particularly timely given the recent death of Fidel, this travels from the first wave of players to come from the island, beginning with Rene Arocha, then Tony Oliva and Luis Tiant, through the Hernandez brothers, up to the explosion of talent and huge money contracts in the last few years, for the likes of Yasmany Tomas, Yasiel Puig and the Gurriel brothers.

It’s a topic which is particularly close to home, since Mrs. SnakePit’s family are originally from Cuba. Her mother grew up in the city of Matanzas, and one part of the film follows John Jay on his trip to discover his own roots there, as that’s where his grandfather used to live. It’s when forging this emotional connection that the film is at its most effective, humanizing the stories of those who left their friends and families behind, in order to play the game they love at the highest level.

While some of these stories are well-known, others may not be. I hadn’t heard too much about Barbaro Garbey, for example. He was able to leave Cuba and come to America during the Mariel boatlift in 1980, since by happy coincidence(!), he had been in prison due to his involvement there in a game-fixing scandal. I must confess, I’d like to hear more background to some of the stories; there’s a reason why the rights to the saga of Puig’s escape were sold to Hollywood! But I guess there’s only so much you can cram into little more than an hour of screen-time.

Similarly, the negatives are mentioned more in passing than in depth. We hear that these days, even very young players, still teenagers, are departing Cuba for the United States - and the majority don’t make it to the majors. Not mentioned is that the steady drain of talent is causing significant problems for Cuban teams: “In recognition of the depleted rosters, the Cuban league now disbands half of its teams at mid-season and shares their players among the eight clubs that are doing best.” As with any system outside the law, you wonder if regulation and control - perhaps similar to the Japanese posting system - might be better for all concerned.

There’s also acknowledgement of the Cuban baseball bubble. A couple of years ago, it seemed that anyone from there was being signed to “silly money” contracts, without it being certain that they could play at the highest level. For example, the Dodgers alone have spent over $230 million on Cubans since signing Puig, without much to show for it - Erisbel Arruebarrena, for example, was suspended for the rest of the season in May, for failure to comply with the terms of his $25 million contract. What we’re seeing now is smaller deals: the younger Gurriel brother, Lourdes, signed a long-term deal with the Blue Jays worth about $3 million per year.

For Diamondbacks’ fans, there are several names of interested featured. Most obvious is Tomas, of course, whose six-year $68.5 million contract remains among the biggest ever given to a Cuban player. The quote above does perhaps shed some light on his struggles, going virtually straight off the boat into the majors. But there’s also the story of Livan Hernandez, winning pitcher for the D-backs when we beat the Cubs in Wrigley Field to clinch our last playoff series win, the 2007 NLCS, and we also hear from Ariel Prieto, currently the team’s official translator, who himself left Cuba in 1995.

It’s going to be interesting to see how things change, in the wake of Fidel’s death. We already saw, earlier this year, Obama become the first American President since the revolution to visit Cuba - and a major part of his visit was an exhibition baseball game between the Rays and the Cuban national team (shown, top). As he said in a speech during the trip, the two countries share a national pastime, pelota, and that’s a force which can be used to build bridges between them and their people. The documentary even got Mrs. SnakePit contemplating a trip back - something to which she has previously been steadfastly opposed. If we go, I feel fairly certain attending a baseball game or two will be part of the experience.

Cuba, Island of Baseball premieres tonight at 7pm Arizona time on the MLB Network. It also airs again at 10:30pm, then on Wednesday at 1am, and Saturday at 4:30pm. Further showing times can be found here.