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Gurriel and Soler: Cuba Continues to Spurn Players in the Big Leagues

Neither the leading hitter in the American League nor the World Series MVP were recognized by the Castroist agency Prensa Latina among the most outstanding athletes of 2021, while Julio Urías (Mexico) and Carlos Correa (Puerto Rico) were.

La Habana
Jorge Soler.
Jorge Soler. FOX

After Fidel Castro's banning of professional sports in Cuba in the early 1960s, the island's athletes who turned pro were forced to leave the country in order to continue competing. In support for this situation, the national press proceeded to paper over the exploits of athletes at this level.

As a result of this measure, in the specific case of baseball Cubans residing on the island, in addition to not being able to follow the futures of players already established in the Cuban Winter League, missed out on the emergence of rising stars who shined in the Major Leagues, like Tony Oliva, Rafael Palmeiro and José Canseco, among others.

Cuban government television, particularly programs dedicated to sports, sought ways to pad their shows with content from international athletic events, anything to divert the public's attention from the play of Cuban players in the MLB. This is how soccer fever began on the island. Every last detail about the European and American soccer leagues was reported in the official media – and not a word about international baseball.

Over time, the  anti-MLB gag rule was slightly eased, and Cuban television inaugurated the program " Béisbol Internacional," which broadcast some games of that League (almost always devoid of Cuban players), while other programs, such as "Meridiano deporte", reported sparingly on the MLB. Finally, as a consequence of the revocation of the agreement between Cuba and the United States allowing Cuban prospects to play in the northern country without having to definitively leave the island, Cuban leaders decided to quash the former program, and everyday Cubans were deprived of being able to watch the best baseball in the world.

Also starting back in the 1960s, the official agency Prensa Latina would annually recognize Latin America's most outstanding athletes. Toeing the Castroist line, for more than 20 years it chose only athletes classified as amateurs. In other words, according to Cuban authorities, no professional athlete could rank among the region's best.

In more recent times the line between professional and amateur athletes has been blurred, as athletes from the two sides now compete together in international competitions. Thus, Prensa Latina began to include professionals on its annual list of standouts, with cyclists, soccer stars (including Leonel Messi) and tennis players, among others, having been acknowledged by said agency.

With this background in mind, 2021's top athletes were recently selected, as the regime's newspaper Juventud Rebelde, in its November 9 issue, uncovered its list of top athletes, with a a total of 15, including baseball players Julio Urías, from Mexico; and Puerto Rican Carlos Correa, both of whom played very well in the most recent MLB season.

However, the omission of Cuban players Yulieski Gurriel and Jorge Soler was more than conspicuous; the first won a Golden Glove at his position, and was the American League's batting leader, while the latter was declared the Most Valuable Player in the World Series, in which his team, the Atlanta Braves, defeated the Houston Astros.

Obviously, this was an act of deliberate exclusion on the part of the Castroist government. Gurriel and Soler had to be punished in some way for daring to leave the island to play in the world's top baseball league. It was, in a way, yet another attack on Cuban baseball by a group that, paradoxically, have categorized it as Cultural Heritage of the Nation.

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