HAVANA (Reuters) - Cubans are getting their best look in years at baseball’s World Series, watching the games on state TV broadcasts a mere 24 hours after the actual event, despite each team featuring a star Cuban defector.
State television traditionally has shown pirated signals of the championship series of Major League Baseball a few days or even weeks after the event. Last year, it only showed the last game of the World Series.
Baseball is the Communist-run island’s most popular sport but fans have struggled to follow the World Series in the past because official broadcasts frequently avoided games with Cuban players who had defected.
That had become more difficult in recent years with Cuban stars populating more U.S. teams. State TV would sometimes simply edit out their plate appearances.
But, with Cuba increasingly connected to the web and open to the West, the World Series this year is being aired with relative swiftness.
“The door is opening,” said Jose Antonio Perez, a chemical engineer, watching the game with friends and family at his home in Havana. “We should be able to watch this live but this could be the beginning.”
The broadcast is just one way in which the island is seeking to show it wants to continue the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations -- even if President Donald Trump’s administration does not.
Havana is embroiled in a diplomatic dispute with Washington over the source of what the U.S. considers sonic attacks against its embassy personnel here.
Because of the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, Major League Baseball (MLB) is banned from reaching a commercial agreement with Cuba’s baseball federation over the transfer of players, forcing the best players to defect, typically by speed boat or abandoning the national team when it is playing abroad.
Two of those players, Yulieski Gurriel of the Houston Astros and Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers, are playing against each other in this year’s Fall Classic.
“This is the weapon that Houston was hoping for,” said a commentator on state-run Cuban TV, after Gurriel, 33, hit a home run to put the Astros ahead of Los Angeles early in Friday’s Game Three, that was re-broadcast on Saturday.
Cuban state commentators have also praised the aggressive playing style of Puig, which they said was typically Latin American. The Cuban slugger goes by the nickname, Crazy Horse.
Cuba’s league has been hurting from a massive talent drain in recent years. There were a record 170 baseball defections in 2015, according to Cuban baseball journalist Francys Romero.
When Puig left in 2012 as a relative unknown among Cuban fans, he was held captive by human traffickers in the Mexican Caribbean who threatened to cut off his arm over a payment dispute.
Throughout much of the defection wave, Gurriel stayed loyal to Cuba’s national team and his Havana club, the Industriales. He finally left in 2016 at age 31, abandoning a Cuban team traveling in the Dominican Republic.
A top MLB official said in 2015, in the wake of the historic U.S.-Cuban detente a year earlier, that it wanted to find a legal way for Cubans to reach the big leagues.
Last week, Cuba criticized the United States in an article in the ruling Communist Party newspaper for failing to achieve that goal.
“The good will of back then seems to have fallen victim to a double play. The authorities don’t talk about it and the presence of the relay in the White House does not augur a hit in the strike zone,” read the article.
Reporting by Sarah Marsh and Anett Rios; Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana and Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Sandra Maler