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A brief history of Cuban Cardinals

In the Castro era, players from the baseball-rich country have been rare in Major League Baseball, but a few Cuban defectors have played for the Cardinals.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

Cuba has a population of slightly over 11 million people, a hair below the population of Ohio. And while Ohio has produced twelve Hall of Famers, including inner-circle names such as Mike Schmidt and Cy Young, only one native of Cuba, Tony Perez, is enshrined in Cooperstown.

But the raw number of Cuba-born baseball players to play in the Major Leagues is misleading without historic context—while 77 Cuban players debuted in Major League Baseball prior to the Cuban Revolution, including such notable players as Minnie Minoso and Camilo Pascual, the path from Cuba to the United States soon became substantially more treacherous, and this was as true for baseball players as for anybody.

For the St. Louis Cardinals, until the 1990s, the most notable Cuban baseball player was Mike Gonzalez. Gonzalez played with the Cardinals for parts of eight seasons, in three different stints, as a catcher; later, Gonzalez was a member of the Cardinals’ coaching staff for four World Series titles and was an interim manager on two separate occasions, in 1938 and 1940. He had arrived effortlessly in the United States and returned to Cuba at 61 without incident. Future generations of Cubans would have a more difficult time making their Major League dreams come true.

The first player to defect from Cuba in order to pursue a nascent MLB dream was Barbaro Garbey, who emigrated to the United States in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift, and who played three seasons in MLB for the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers, and later served as hitting coach of the Cardinals’ A-ball affiliate Peoria Chiefs.

The next Cuban defector to play in Major League Baseball came eleven years later, in future Cardinals pitcher Rene Arocha. Unlike Garbey, who had arrived in the United States during a period in which both the American and Cuban governments approved of the immigration, Arocha defected to the United States on July 10, 1991 while competing with the Cuban national baseball team. Arocha, in a story he later retold to the New York Times, slipped away from the team’s hotel in Miami and sought asylum in the United States.

Major League Baseball did not have codified protocol for how to handle Cuban refugees, but once the dust settled, Rene Arocha was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals. He spent the 1992 season playing for the AAA Louisville Redbirds and he made his MLB debut on April 9, 1993, and in his rookie season, Arocha posted a 3.78 ERA and was the team’s second most effective starting pitcher, trailing only Bob Tewksbury in wins, innings, and Wins Above Replacement.

Only Steve Cooke of the Pittsburgh Pirates led Arocha among National League rookie pitchers by FanGraphs WAR, and while Arocha was relatively old for a rookie at 29, he showed promise for the future. Unfortunately, Arocha’s next two seasons were sullied by injuries and following a lost 1996, he was dealt to the San Francisco Giants as the Player To Be Named Later in a trade for catcher Tom Lampkin. Following 10 13 innings with the Giants, Arocha’s career was over.

The next Cardinals player to have defected from Cuba was Bill Ortega, who on November 5, 1996, while earning $8 a month in Cuba, defected to the United States via Mexico and in 1997, Ortega signed with the Cardinals. Ortega’s MLB career consisted of five pinch-hitting appearances in September 2001, one of which resulted in a single.

In 1999, last year’s Cardinals’ backup catcher, Brayan Pena, defected from Cuba at the age of 16. In a widely circulated autobiographical post for The Players’ Tribune, Pena recalled the trying circumstances surrounding his journey to the United States. He has had an unspectacular but ultimately long MLB career since signing as an amateur free agent with the Atlanta Braves in 2000.

In 2003, 25 year-old Cuban national baseball team pitcher Raul Valdes defected, and in 2004, he signed with the Chicago Cubs. He struggled in just over two seasons in the Cubs’ minor league system, and after pitching with the independent Nashua Pride and New Jersey Jackals, Valdes signed with the New York Mets and made his MLB debut in 2010. After struggling, Valdes signed a minor league deal with the Cardinals, and in 2011, he made seven appearances with the big-league club before he was eventually designated for assignment. Valdes now pitches for the Chunichi Dragons of Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan.

The most recent Cuban Cardinal is already the most productive by WAR of the post-Revolution era—Aledmys Diaz. While participating in a tournament in the Netherlands with the Cuban national team in 2012, Diaz defected and in 2014, he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. While Diaz spent two full seasons in the Cardinals minor league system and was considered somewhat of a disappointment, he had a breakthrough in 2016 in which he became the first defector to be an All-Star for the Cardinals.

Aledmys Diaz is the 12th Cuban defector (along with Jose Abreu, Rolando Arrojo, Danys Baez, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Contreras, Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Fernandez, Livan Hernandez, Jose Iglesias, Yasiel Puig, and Alexei Ramirez) to have made the MLB All-Star Game (three other Cuban-Americans—Jose Canseco, Yasmani Grandal, and Rafael Palmeiro—made All-Star teams after having been born in Cuba and relocating with permission from the Cuban government). Diaz is just the latest example of a country with a deep passion for baseball producing incredible talent at the highest level of baseball, despite extraordinary hurdles to clear.