The Cuban flag is displayed during pre-game anthems at exhibition game between members of one of Cuba's most famous baseball teams, Industriale, in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

The Cuban flag is displayed during pre-game anthems at an exhibition game between members of one of Cuba's most famous baseball teams, Industriale, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Credit:

Andrew Innerarity/Reuters

Cuba is a gold mine for baseball players. Some lucky ballplayers, like Yasiel Puig or Yoenis Cespedes, escape the island and end up making millions in the major leagues. But it remains difficult for players to play outside Cuba, especially knowing they typically can never return.

That's the case for Hassan Pena. He's a journeyman pitcher who has bounced from one minor league team to another. He plays in Venezuela during the winter, and that's where Alfredo Villasmil, a senior baseball writer for Venezuela's Ultimas Noticias newspaper, broke the news to Pena about the US-Cuba deal.

"I talked to him and said, 'Hassan, what do you think about Cuba and the United States setting up a new relationship?'" Villasmil says, "He didn't want to cry, but he said, 'Are you serious?' I said, 'Yes.' And he started to shed tears of joy and said, 'That is wonderful for us.'"

Pena has been away from his family for 10 years, and he's excited about the possibility of visiting them soon.

The American embargo has certainly had an impact on Cuba, but Villasmil says it also affected Venezuela and other Latin American countries. With Cuban talent mostly off the market, other countries were able to move in. "[The] Dominican Republic and Venezuela have been the main producer of talent. They fill the gap left by Cuba," he says.

Villasmil is quick to say that Cuba remains a goldmine of talent; there are plenty of quality players still coming up through the ranks on the island. What he really wants to see is the embargo lifted and the athletes given an opportunity to play in the big leagues.

That opportunity will surely change the way the game is played and run in Cuba, but Villasmil also doesn't think there will be a huge, sudden outflow of talent. Cuba's local championship is still important to the country.

But as a fan — and Villasmil is definitely a fan of the sport — he thinks lifting the embargo is a good thing. It will open up the baseball world for the players, he says, and open up the world to Cuban baseball. 

"Cuba is a baseball country," Villasmil says. "Cuba is one of the first countries in Latin America where baseball was played outside of the United States. So for me it's going to be fantastic."

Villasmil says has never been to Cuba, but now he might finally have that chance, and it's one he'd love to take. "Cuban baseball is fantastic," he says. "They play baseball very beautifully. I like it."

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