Guest Post: Cole McMahon and Cuba’s only SABRmetrician
EDITOR’S NOTE: This summer, my friend Cole McMahon accompanied his father to Miami for the annual gathering of members of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR). Cole was along for the ride, hoping to enjoy Miami and take in a Marlins game. But at the convention, he became fast friends with Cuban baseball blogger and SABR member Reynaldo Cruz Diaz. Cole asked us to post his story and we’re only too happy to do that. Here it is.
Reynaldo Cruz Diaz is a man of the future, disguised as a 70’s era war photographer. He routinely wears a fedora, a khaki cargo vest and two large cameras. I met him at the Society for American Baseball Research’s annual conference this summer in Miami. Reynaldo requested a roommate for the conference because he makes $17 a month as a photojournalist and interpreter for Periodico ¡AHORA!, a newspaper in Holguín, 700 km east of Havana, Cuba.
Reynaldo is a bridge to the world outside Cuba. His blog and online magazine, Universo Béisbol (http://universobeisbol.mlblogs.com), reports on baseball outside of Cuba, and how Cuban players are faring in the major leagues.
In a place where outside information is hard to come by, his work takes a special blend of research, analytical skills and patience. Like other baseball bloggers, he’s particularly obsessive, printing statistics during the day for analysis at night. “Internet access isn’t very good where I live. When I write online, the words appear ten seconds after I type them. It’s an arduous process.”
He got his blogging start after he ran across a source of Japanese baseball reports.
“No one in Cuba knew anything about the Japanese League,” he says. “I emailed the translations to friends and colleagues, and added my comments. Some coworkers told me I should have a blog.”
The only member of SABR living in Cuba, Rey is introducing advanced analytics to his nation’s baseball fans. “I found SABR because I am always digging up everything I can find on the internet about baseball,” he says. “I’m a baseball nerd, and I found out that SABR is exactly the place I should be, surrounded by other baseball nerds.”
Two years ago, Reynaldo read a SABR journal article about players around the world who have hit four home runs in a game. He noticed something and emailed the authors a note. “One of the three Cubans on the list did it in a year when they used aluminum bats,” he recalls. “They posted my revision the next day. It is very nice to work with people who are so humble that they will use information that they don’t have.”
As a blogger in Cuba, Reynaldo thinks he has more freedom than other writers in his country to express opinions. “The authorities are so reluctant to give credit where credit is due. They overlook the Cuban players in America, but they have nothing but praise for Miguel Cabrera, because he’s from Venezuela,” a Cuban ally.
Rey doesn’t have to jockey for access and approval like the writers in the traditional media outlets. Still, he says, “You shouldn’t be a rebel with no cause. Don’t criticize without a point. What I do differently is I never say something compromising without factual evidence. And when I’m wrong, I admit it.
“For instance, I wrote that Yoenis Cespedes was not going to be effective in the major leagues. Basically, he was a clutch choker. In the 2010 World Games in Tokyo, he hit 4 home runs in the round robin, then went dry against Indonesia and the US. He set a single season HR record in Cuba. But that year he didn’t get a home run hitting against any pitcher on the national team. He never got a home run in the last three innings! When the competition increases, he goes down.
“First game in the major leagues, he drives in the winning run. I thought he was going to be a complete failure, but now he’s the best Cuban player in the major leagues. I wrote about this before his first season, but I couldn’t stay quiet, so was like, ‘Dude, Cespedes has just had the best season of his baseball career, inside or outside of Cuba.’”
While my trip to the SABR conference was filial lark, I got the feeling Reynaldo was on an extended audition, like a hopeful actor just off the bus in Hollywood. When you live in Cuba, attending a SABR convention is a big deal. He created pretext after pretext to be in the U.S. because his visa was approved too quickly. “I applied several months in advance, so I would have it in time. The U.S. Embassy in Havana must really want me to visit America.” The visa was approved in two days, causing him to scramble for pretexts to visit and places to stay. By his arrival in Miami on July 27, Reynaldo had covered the Cuban Under-15 team’s goodwill tour and the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, and visited ballparks and SABR members in ten cities.
While I was optimistic about political change, Reynaldo was almost wistful. “What you were taught about Cuba and what I was taught about America…things are more complicated than the way we see them.” This extends to baseball. “There’s a deep and dark back-story. As Peter Bjarkman writes in Cuba’s Baseball Defectors, Cuban players in America experience human trafficking to get here, and extortion once they sign contracts… sometimes they seem like bad teammates, but baseball players don’t know about psychology. There’s trauma, stress you cannot take away.”
By some accounts, Cuban-American negotiations are creeping along, and baseball may not provide the hoped-for diplomatic boost. “Cuban kids play soccer. Cuban baseball is going through the same talent drain that permanently damaged the Negro Leagues. Fans are losing interest in Cuban baseball, and the leagues may collapse.” Reynaldo often quotes Bjarkman, for whom he translated A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006. ‘Will Cuba become like the Dominican Republic—a one-way talent pipeline – or will MLB create a pathway that will help relations between the two nations?’”
It is an awkward thing to watch someone else experiencing a seismic change that doesn’t affect you all that much. Whatever happens with the thaw between nations, my livelihood will remain the same, but Reynaldo is trying to get ahead of a tsunami.
Hopefully, with his integrity, humor and insight, Reynaldo can ride that wave.