Photos: Young Cuban baseball players dream of the American major leagues | Baseball

Eight-year-old Kevin Kindelan, a “hotheaded” shortstop for a Central Havana junior league baseball team, and seven-year-old teammate and first baseman Leoni Venego both dream of to be famous in Cuba.

Kindelan says he wants to play for the Cuba national baseball team, but Venego, regaining his composure after a big swing and a miss in a recent practice session, has his sights set on a bigger one. price.

“I want to get into the Major League and be like Yuli Gurriel,” he said, referring to a Cuban first baseman for the Houston Astros, a baseball team in the United States, a longtime rival of Cuba to the north.

Success in baseball, Cuba’s national pastime and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s favorite activity, is increasingly measured beyond its borders.

This reflects a wider exodus of Cubans from the stagnant communist-ruled island, torn by social and economic crisis.

Cuba’s economy shrank 11% in 2020 and has grown only slightly since, according to official figures, plagued by the coronavirus pandemic and still strangled by the Cold War-era US embargo.

“Over the past six years, the number of baseball players who have left the country has also tripled compared to the 2000-2010 decade,” 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 so driven by communist ideology or love of country, Romero told Reuters news agency, a force that for decades has driven Cubans to great achievement. including Olympic gold medals in baseball in Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996 and Athens in 2004.

“In the past, players waited a long time to emigrate, to prove themselves. Now they leave at 16 or 17,” he said. “A lot of Cuban players are no longer aligned with government ideology or policy.”

At the “Ponton” ballpark in central Havana, with its muddy infield and weed-covered foul lines, some of Cuba’s youngest players practice, take their first excited shots, play catch and kick in the hands.

But no one – not even these kids – escapes the effect of Cuba’s crushing economic crisis – or the lure of migration, says youth coach Irakly Chirino, a former Cuban national league player who began his career at Ponton.

“Here we don’t have gloves, bats, shoes or even balls to play with… and when we have them, they’re too expensive,” Chirino told Reuters on the sidelines of a training session at the end of the week. spring.

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