Over the past few years, an influx of Cuban-born players have made their way into the consciousness of baseball fans. Whether they are brash, somersaulting flamethrowers like Aroldis Chapman, or workout freaks like Yoenis Cespedes, or youngsters who make sabermetricians’ eyes bulge out of their heads like Jose Fernandez, each of the Cuban additions to the league have a set of commonalties: a harrowing tale of escape from the evil, evil clutches of Fidel Castro and their island home, a heated and protracted battle between major league clubs to sign them to lucrative deals, and for many in the last five years, rousing success. Each of the last three seasons has seen a Cuban-born player burst onto the baseball radar in some spectacular way: this year Jose Abreu of the White Sox has driven runs home on seemingly every one of his at bats, Fernandez and Yasiel Puig were the two main competitors for NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2013, and in 2012 Cespedes keyed a surprising Athletics team to a playoff appearance.
However, I’m not going to rehash the statistical achievements of these players, or even to delve into why they’re good. Their success transcends statistics and mechanics for me, since I’m also Cuban-American. I’m not Cuban in the way that these players are Cuban, basically at all. None of my immediate relatives have lived on the island since my grandparents came to America more than fifty years ago. I haven’t been to Cuba, and I haven’t really even thought particularly much about ever going, because people have told me it was awful there since I was a toddler. I can’t dance like everyone expects me to be able to. The Cubanness takes a different shape for me and the many people like me back home in Miami; home video exists of me saying “Fidel Castro is good for nothing” in Spanish several times in a row after being prompted, and I’ll inform anyone with great sesquipedalian zeal about the merits of Cuban cuisine (it isn’t spicy, contrary to the beliefs of the uninformed). Another important aspect of this experience is a unerring sense of pride and sometimes irrational urge to defend Cuban baseball players.
My first recollection of this phenomenon comes from 1997. I was five years old and the my hometown Marlins, in a rare fit of not being a nationwide embarrassment, were playing the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series and the very Cuban Livan Hernandez struck out fifteen batters en route to a complete game three-hit win over Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux. Cuban people went insane, from what I can remember. Luckily, this moment was trapped in the amber of time and there are several photographs of me and my sister holding Cuban flags in front of a relevant Miami Herald front page taped to a wall in the living room, with both of us wearing adult-large Marlins shirts. This is a real thing, and it captures only a sliver of the fervor surrounding Livan in those days. Livan could have intentionally killed a family pet with a fastball that day, and my dad would have still invited him in for coffee. Although that confluence of cultural and geographical circumstances has yet to repeat itself in later years, there’s always a new Livan. Long after Livan got fat and posted a 4.50 ERA for basically every team in the Western Hemisphere at one point or another, I still get a couple of texts from home during every Jose Fernandez start. People go crazy even when someone who could PLAUSIBLY be Cuban starts doing well (support for Manny Machado waned after a Wiki search revealed he was actually just from Miami and not Cuban in any way).
Why is this? I feel like this taps into a decades-long tradition in baseball of people rooting especially hard for anyone who might resemble them in some way. For instance, Padres starting catcher Yasmani Grandal, on top of being Cuban, went to my high school. We attended the same school at the same time! We weren’t really close, but for some reason I want him to hit the ball into the magnetosphere every time he bats, despite the fact that I’ve never met a baseball player in real life who I actually liked (the one my sister dated had too firm of a handshake). Then I can claim that all those times we ignored each other in the hallway had something to do with his success. We always have the hometown bias. Maybe somewhere deep inside, we feel like there’s something in the water in our respective suburbs that makes us good at stuff, and that this one person is proving the high value of where we’re from, indirectly affirming our self esteem.
Nobody says it makes sense. I’d imagine it’s the same for Dominican-Americans or Puerto Ricans or basically anyone else with any representation in sports. Barring a Ryan Braun scenario (the Jewish-American community nods disapprovingly), you’re going to give your guys the benefit of the doubt. This is why if Don Mattingly says Yasiel Puig is pulled out of the lineup for being late to the park, I just assume it was because Don’s insensitive and Puig was a little slow getting back in the LA traffic from his shift feeding the homeless. I’m also half Panamanian, so you can expect an epic poem about Mariano Rivera prevailing over evil from me at some point.