The pipeline: How baseball-mad Cuba develops top-tier talent
HAVANA, Cuba (AP) Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu and other Cuban baseball players arriving in the major leagues in recent years all come from the same pipeline: state-run academies that produce hundreds of players in the baseball-mad island.
While major league teams have academies where they groom their own prospects in other talent-rich Latin American countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, players in Cuba are hand-picked by the government in elementary school and developed to feed its national team and dozens of national and regional leagues.
''I started when I was 6,'' said Yasmany Tomas, a slugger who fled Cuba in 2014 and signed a $68.5 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks. ''We have very good coaches from an early age, and that helps athletes to have good careers.''
As more Cuban talent leaves the country, that nation's academies have become a sort of unintended farm system for big league teams, which scout the players mostly during international tournaments with the national team.
''The level of amateur baseball in Cuba is much better than in our (Latin American) countries,'' said Junior Noboa, the Diamondbacks vice president for Latin America, who is from the Dominican Republic. ''Their sports programs are much more organized than ours, there's no doubt about it.''
A brief look at the Cuban baseball program:
Kids are recruited at 6 and 7 years old by physical education teachers in school intramural tournaments. Those who show a knack for the game are assigned to special sports schools in each city before turning nine.
Later, the most talented players are sent to the 15 special baseball schools in the country, one in each province. Cuba also has similar schools for other sports like track and field and soccer.
National-team level prospects are selected at 15 to study and train at the National Baseball Academy in Havana, where they remain for the next eight years and get a sports degree.
''Every athlete who is a prospect in their respective sport, to continue in that sport has to get a degree,'' said Tomas. ''Once you finish your career, you continue linked to the sport.''
Those who don't make the cut at any point continue in local academies, where they study and train with hopes of eventually reaching the national academy and making the national team. Cuba plays in international tournaments in every age category from under-12 to under-23, and last year won the under-15 world championship.
Baseball is the national sport in Cuba, where kids dream of playing for the national team or, increasingly, major league clubs. Former President Fidel Castro is a fervent fan of the game, and it is said in his pre-Revolution years he was a decent right-handed pitcher.
The sport was brought to the island in 1864 century by Cuban students returning from the U.S., and the island quickly became a baseball hotbed. Castro outlawed all professional sports in 1962, but baseball continued to thrive in the state-run schools.
Nowadays, there are local, regional and national tournaments in each of five age groups, plus the Cuban league, called Serie Nacional (National Series) with 16 teams, one for each province plus the special district of Isla de la Juventud.
Cuba has a similar structure for all major sports, following the age categories established by each international federation.
Sports are a mandatory course in all schools, and this structure has helped the island of 11 million people excel internationally in boxing, track and field, wrestling, volleyball and other sports, with dozens of Olympic and world champions.
Ricardo Zuniga contributed to this report from New York and Scottsdale, Arizona.