DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Not much luck for the St. Louis Cardinal when they lost to the Boston Red Sox this year. That World Series, that whole season a fading memory. But in Cuba, baseball season is just getting started. It's the first season since communist authorities lifted a 50-year-old ban on players signing professional contracts abroad. This means even more Cubans could defect to the United States to play. Yet fans on the island are not booing the change.
Here's Nick Miroff from Havana.
NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: Going to a baseball game at Havana's Latin American stadium is a little different.
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MIROFF: There's no beer for sale. And no nachos or Cracker Jacks either. Fans with air horns and cow bells sip rum from soda bottles and smoke cigarettes in the cement bleachers. In place of a Jumbotron or the Kiss Cam, there are socialist slogans in huge letters above the outfield, declaring Cuba is a country of champions and its athletes a victory of the revolution.
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MIROFF: One thing that does compare is the talent on the field. Yulieski Gourriel, the star third baseman for Havana's Industriales, could probably sign a big league contract tomorrow for tens of millions. Here top players are lucky to earn $100 a month. But after spending decades trying to block them from leaving, Cuba is betting its biggest stars will return home if allowed to spend part of the year earning real money in places like Mexico or Japan.
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MIROFF: It's a huge change here, but it also creates an easy way to defect to the United States, where salaries are much higher but the U.S. trade embargo means Cuban players and their earnings can't legally return. Still, Industriales fan Yolexi Ibanez says he's not worried about a talent drain from the island.
YOLEXI IBANEZ: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: Ballplayers grow like the grass here, Ibanez said. Some will leave, but I think others will return home just like they do in Venezuela, Mexico or the Dominican Republic, and put on the uniforms of their national teams.
In the Fidel Castro school of sports, a country's athletes should remain amateurs, playing for national pride, not the highest-paying customer. But that view is fading here along with the 87-year-old retired commandante, and one of his sons, baseball official Antonio Castro, is pushing the changes.
Other young Cubans at the stadium, like Silvia Blanco, say they want to see their players competing against the best in the world.
SILVIA BLANCO: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: That's what motivates them, Blanco said, and in turn makes them better players.
The streets are often the best place for baseball commentary in Cuba, and especially a spot known as the Hot Corner.
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MIROFF: It's not a corner per se, but a meeting place in Havana's Central Park, where men gather each day to argue heatedly about baseball. One of the regular combatants here, Jesus Sosa, said there are few doubts that more Cubans will end up leaving for bigger pay and the chance to play at the game's highest level in the U.S.
JESUS SOSA: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: That's where the best baseball is played, Sosa said. Maybe more Cubans can now play in Mexico or Japan, but the top players from those leagues also go to the United States.
For decades, fans here had virtually no access to information about players who defected. But now many Cubans follow Major League baseball through the Internet or pirated satellite TV. The government has also relented, showing World Series games on state television this year for the first time.
Rey Estrada watched the whole thing, and said Cuban fans will soon be like Dominicans or Venezuelans, rooting for their players even when they no longer compete at home.
REY ESTRADA: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: In the end we all feel proud, Estrada said, even those who criticize the players for leaving.
ESTRADA: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: Cubans have continued to defect at a record pace, despite the government's new opening. After fleeing to Haiti over the summer, slugger Jose Abreu signed with the Chicago White Sox last month for six years and $68 million. It's the biggest contract yet for a Cuban player.
For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.
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GREENE: Love being able to think about baseball in late November.
You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
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