The Serie Nacional goes back to 1961, when Fidel Castro abolished Cuba’s professional baseball league, along with all other professional sports, and installed a nationalized amateur athletic system. The vision for the new system was to create a globally competitive athletic program that would advertise the success and power of Castro’s socialist ideals on the international stage––a vision similar to that of the former Soviet Union’s athletic program. While Cuba has found international success in boxing, judo, volleyball, and other sports, the crown jewel of the communist Cuban athletic program has always been baseball.
For most of the last six decades, the Cuban national baseball team descended upon various tournaments throughout the world, often with striking all-red uniforms and a roster full of mysterious but fiercely competitive talent, to dominate the competition. Cuba has won 18 of the 25 Baseball World Cups that have been held since the 1959 revolution. The country has also won 11 gold medals in baseball—plus one silver and one bronze—at the 14 Pan American Games that have been held in that time. Baseball has been a part of the past five Olympics; Cuba has won three gold medals and two silver medals. Even when competing against top-level Major League talent, Cuba still took home the silver medal at the 2006 World Baseball Classic.
The success of the Cuban national team stems from the highly organized government-run baseball system that underlies it. The Serie Nacional is provincially based, with each of the 16 teams in the league representing each of Cuba’s 16 provinces. In each province, talented children are funneled up through local teams of each age group, where they receive intensive training through the system of regional athletic academies. Eventually, they will represent their respective provinces in the Serie Nacional. Top players are then selected from the Serie to represent Cuba at the international level. Apart from a few high profile defections like Industriales’ Orlando Hernandez and Pinar del Rio’s Jose Contreras, for much of the past five decades the government succeeded in keeping top talent in Cuba––often coercively––to serve the aims of the state. However, in the last few years that system has been eroding at a rapid pace.
When Barack Obama announced in December 2014 that he would begin the process of normalizing diplomatic relations, many Cubans rightfully guessed that their special immigration status to the United States would soon come to end, which led to an enormous boom in Cuban emigration. The number of Cuban immigrants arriving to the United States surged from 24,000 people in 2014 to 43,000 people in 2015. The Serie Nacional lost 150 players in 2015 alone. Most were not Major League prospects and many did not leave the country to pursue ambitions in professional baseball. However, in a 16-team league, 150 players works out to nearly 10 players per team, gutting the league of its depth.
By January 2016, a top young outfielder who had represented the Cuban national team at youth level told me in no uncertain terms that he thought the Serie Nacional was the worst baseball league in the Caribbean. Given that Cuba had won the 2015 Caribbean Series, the statement seemed crazy. But he was right. Most of the players from that team were already gone or soon to leave. Even that young outfielder defected from Cuba last fall and recently signed a 2.8 million-dollar contract with the Texas Rangers.
The Cuban government has reacted to the steep decline of the Serie Nacional by radically changing the league’s format. The season now has a break halfway through and the bottom 10 teams are eliminated. Their players are then absorbed by the remaining six teams through a draft. A second draft before the playoffs absorbs the top players of the two teams eliminated into the four teams advancing to the semifinals. But even still, there simply isn’t enough talent to consolidate. At the last World Baseball Classic, Cuba was fortunate even to reach the second round, where they failed to win a single game against Japan, The Netherlands, and Israel. When baseball returns to the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, it will be the first time in history that Cuba enters an Olympic baseball tournament not as the favorite.
All that remains of Cuba’s glorious baseball history are decaying ballparks, a few aging stars, and the fans who still live and die with their provincial team and whose towns still can be temporarily reshaped by a deep playoff run.