- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, was offended. Here were Cuban refugees swarming into the U.S., a land that prides itself on maintaining a free market for talent. And here was Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, alerted that there might be some big league prospects among the refugees, warning clubs to refrain, for now anyway, from signing any of them. Which was all Miller needed to hear. "We should readapt the slogan: 'the land of the free—except for baseball,' " he said.
It would be a gross overstatement, of course, to equate the yearnings of major league ballplayers, many of whom are earning small and not-so-small fortunes, with the refugees' quest for freedom. Still, Kuhn's directive played right into Miller's hands—and at a rather awkward moment for baseball's establishment. As Miller and other sports labor organizers never tire of pointing out, owing to amateur drafts, compensation requirements and vestiges of the old reserve system, professional athletes are generally less free to sell their services to the highest bidder than Americans in other professions. It is only because baseball players have succeeded in shedding some of the restraints on their freedom to negotiate in the open market that their salaries have soared in recent years. Conversely, it is largely because the owners want to introduce new restraints, including increased compensation to teams that lose the services of free agents, that the players have set their May 23 strike deadline. Last week, even as Kuhn was acting on the Cuban situation, the owners and Miller's union resumed their long-stalled negotiations in an effort to avert a walkout.
In ruling that clubs not sign Cuban players, Kuhn may be paving the way for putting the Cubans under the same constraints imposed on home-grown American prospects, who are divvied up by the clubs in amateur drafts. Ironically, players from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other Latin baseball hotbeds aren't subject to drafts but are free to bargain with more than one club.
Of necessity, Cuba has long been a special case. After Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959, the flow of talent from that country to the U.S. was cut off. When Castro invited the New York Yankees to play on his island in 1977, Kuhn vetoed the trip, expressing fear that the Yankees might otherwise gain an unfair advantage in scouting and signing Cuban talent. That was the same rationale officially given for last week's action, but Marty Appel, a spokesman for the commissioner, acknowledged to SI's Robert Sullivan that Kuhn's pronouncement also was meant to prevent a costly bidding war for Cuban players. Appel said that a draft expressly for Cubans might eventually be set up.
Kuhn's hastily imposed moratorium made it difficult to say for sure whether there actually are bona fide big league prospects among the refugees. Before the commissioner intervened, Cincinnati scout George Zuraw visited a refugee encampment in Florida to check out some 30 players, including Second Baseman Julio Soto and Catcher Rogelio Mediavilla, both of whom have played at the top level of Cuban baseball. It was a poignant scene. Going through their paces on a field overgrown with crabgrass, the Cubans, some of them barefoot, scooped up ground balls, ran timed sprints and took cuts at Zuraw's pitching, a fence serving as an improvised backstop. Hundreds of other refugees watched and cheered.
Zuraw said that several of the Cuban players "looked all right," but added, "I'd like to see some of these guys under better conditions." However, following Kuhn's directive, the Cincinnati brass said it wouldn't pursue the Cubans further. But the memory of Zuraw's unique scouting trip will linger. From the standpoint of public relations, to say nothing of humanity, it stands in sharp contrast to Kuhn's attempt to hold down the price on Cuban talent. Zuraw said that during his hour-long visit with the refugees, he lost two baseball gloves, half a dozen balls and a pair of spikes. "Actually, I happily gave them away," he said. "I even brought extra balls and gloves because I knew what would happen."
A CLASSIC OF ITS KIND
Move over, Boston and New York, and make room for the American Odyssey Marathon in the rolling dairy country of central Wisconsin. Held for the first time last fall, the American Odyssey drew just 89 runners, who were greeted by coveralled farmers, contented cows and signs on tractors reading WELCOME MARATHONERS. Despite its down-home flavor, the fact that the race begins in Marathon and ends in Athens gives it an instant and irresistible identity.
Marathon is a town of 1,500 inhabitants that was named in 1849 by W.D. McIndoe, a lumber tycoon and member of the Wisconsin legislature. A lover of the Greek classics, McIndoe also was instrumental in getting the surrounding territory named Marathon County. Athens, which has 900 souls, is situated 18 miles northwest of Marathon. It was originally called Black Creek Falls, but because it was forever being confused with the larger Wisconsin community of Black River Falls, in 1879 the town acknowledged both its proximity to Marathon and its presence in Marathon County by changing its name to Athens.