A new generation of Cuban stars is staging a baseball revolution

John Niyo

Detroit — As a kid, Brayan Pena idolized The Kid.

These days, he wonders how many kids in his native Cuba are growing up wanting to be like him. Or more likely, wanting to be like the precocious kid he sits next to in the Tigers’ clubhouse, rookie shortstop Jose Iglesias.

Pena, the Tigers’ veteran catcher, says he revered the third baseman for his country’s national team, Omar Linares, as a youth. Still does, actually.

“He was like the Miguel Cabrera of our time,” Pena said, smiling as he nodded in the MVP’s direction prior to Tuesday’s game against the Twins at Comerica Park. “Everybody was amazed by the way he handled himself on and off the field. He’s still a big idol for all of us.”

But “El Nino” never got a chance to do what Cabrera’s doing, or what Iglesias and several of Major League Baseball’s emerging young stars — from Yasiel Puig to Jose Fernandez to Yoenis Cespedes — are doing, because he never defected the way some of his peers eventually did, beginning with Rene Arocha in 1991.

Linares turned down the New York Yankees, starred for years in Cuba’s National Series — he later spent a few years playing in Japan — and was held up by Fidel Castro as the gold standard for his revolution.

Next generation

Now, a new generation is staging a different kind of insurgency. There’s Puig, a 22-year-old outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was the talk of the league earlier this summer, sparking one of the hottest streaks in MLB history. There’s Fernandez, the 21-year-old ace for the Miami Marlins, who’s vying with Puig for National League rookie of the year honors. And then there’s Iglesias, 23, the slick-fielding shortstop acquired from Boston at the trade deadline and arguably the frontrunner for the AL rookie award.

There’s also Cespedes, a five-tool talent and reigning All-Star Home Run Derby champ the Tigers pursued before signing Prince Fielder, who immediately helped Oakland return to the playoffs after a five-year drought. And there’s more, with players like Aroldis Chapman (Cincinnati) already established in the U.S., and others on the way — slugger Jose Abreu is the latest defector poised to strike it rich as a free agent.

“It’s just really fun to see the young players’ success on this level,” said Iglesias, the defensive whiz who had another two-hit night for the Tigers in Tuesday’s 6-3 loss.

Fun? Yes. And important, too.

“Definitely,” said Pena, who limped off with a toe injury after his leadoff single in the ninth inning Tuesday. “Because we do take a big pride in our baseball in Cuba. It’s our national pastime. … And for them to see the success that we’re all having here at this level, it’s pretty inspirational.”

Pena’s individual story is, too, of course. At the age of 17, after months of fearful planning, he defected from Cuba by escaping out of a bathroom window at a hotel in Caracas, Venezuela, where he was playing in a tournament with the national team. He spent five months in hiding in Venezuela, and then a few months more in Costa Rica before getting a major-league tryout and a new life in the U.S. His family was kept in the dark — for its own safety — back in Cuba. Now more than a decade later, he’s a naturalized U.S. citizen, with a young family of his own in Florida and his parents and four brothers moved safely to Miami.

“Everybody knows how we struggled to leave the country and everything we left behind — the family, the friends, the land where you grew up,” Pena said. “So for us to make it and do well, humbly, it makes them proud. Back home they wake up and try to find the scores, wondering ‘What did Puig do?’ or ‘What did Iglesias do?’ and stuff like that, It’s very exciting for them.”

Major loss

Exciting for baseball fans here as well, obviously, whether it’s Puig’s flair for the dramatic — another first-pitch, pinch-hit homer Tuesday — or Iglesias’ flashy plays in the field. (“He’ll make some plays that’ll have ’em ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’,” said Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who raves about his new shortstop’s instincts and baseball smarts.)

There were Cubans playing here in the U.S. before Castro came to power in 1959, certainly. And players like Tony Perez and Tony Oliva were among the first to make the leap — with a stop in Mexico along the way — when Castro outlawed professional sports there in ’61. There have been Cuban-born stars in the majors since, too, including Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro. But we can only imagine the ones we’ve missed over the last half-century. Ask Pena, and he’ll talk about Linares. Ask Iglesias, and he’ll talk about “The Magnet,” German Mesa, “the best shortstop I’ve ever seen.”

“Everybody knows, with all due respect, the Cuban talent on the island has been there forever,” Pena said. “But the fact that now we’ve got a little bit more opportunity to see players show their talent here, it means a lot.”

Earlier in his career, Pena says, “Whenever I got the opportunity to talk to old-timers or guys who played back in the day, they’d tell me, ‘Man, Cuban players, they play hard and they come here and play with a lot of passion, with a lot of desire.” That makes you feel good.”

But it makes him feel even better that “maybe 10 years down the road, some of the Cuban players are going to look up to us and say, ‘You know what? Those guys really did it for us.’ ”