Cuba not only reigns as the world's Olympic baseball champion, its citizens enjoy superlative professional play at bargain prices in ballparks largely free of commercial gimmicks and hype.
But an economist now weighs in with research showing that Cuba's government-run baseball system exploits its players, while offering its fans less-even competition between teams than in the market-driven United States.
"The organization of baseball in Cuba offers a stark contrast to that of baseball in the U.S.," said Katie Baird, an economist at the University of Washington, Tacoma, and author of the new study on Cuban baseball. "Cuba's system makes a great case study of how organizing sports through non-market rules has unintended consequences."
According to Baird's research, to be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Cuba's pro players - despite their modest $15-a-month salaries - generate little profit for the state. Except, that is, for the dozens of stars who have been allowed to accept foreign contracts since the 1990s under a program to cut defections. The Cuban state collects about 80 cents of every dollar they make from their foreign teams.
"Exploitation means that someone other than the laborer receives the value gained from work performed," Baird said. "These foreign contracts are a clear case of exploitation."
Cuban fans griped so much about the exodus of baseball talent that authorities clamped down on the overseas deals. But forcing players to stay in Cuba, Baird said, exploits them in a different way - it prevents them from making money in foreign baseball leagues that are keen to hire Cuban talent.
"In this sense," she said, "many Cuban players can be thought of as exploited by their government."
The clampdown on foreign contracts led, of course, to a new round of defections, most recently that of outfielder Kendry Morales, whose six-year deal with the Angels came with a $3 million signing bonus. So Havana recently decided to allow foreign contracts again.
Capitalist baseball has its own checkered past of player exploitation through rules that gave club owners near-total control, but that has largely, but not completely, given way to an era of riches for the players who make it to the top.
So fans of today may be more concerned with the degree of competitiveness between teams - an area in which Baird's research found that Cuba comes up short.
Fans generally prefer an even distribution of talent. Despite complaints about New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's domineering deals, Baird found that the Cuban League is less balanced than the National and American leagues.
Over the last quarter-century, she found, the Cuban League teams were 22 percent less evenly balanced in their win-loss records than those in the Major Leagues. In other words, cellar-dwellers were more likely to stay on the bottom, and vice-versa.
To gauge competitiveness, Baird calculated the standard deviation - a measure of spread - in team records. Each league's "imbalance score" was derived from the ratio of its actual record over an "ideal" standard deviation that would be expected if all teams were evenly matched and winning or losing was the equivalent of flipping a coin. Thus, a higher ratio shows greater imbalance - wins are more concentrated in certain teams. And so while another study shows that Major League Baseball's balance score averaged around 1.7 over the last quarter century, Baird found Cuba's indicator to be a less-balanced 2.08.
In both countries, teams' ability to draw talent stems from their home base. Cuban players are required to stay on their provincial team, so clubs in areas with a larger population draw from a bigger talent pool. In the Major Leagues, clubs in the biggest cities have more revenue opportunities and usually get pricier players.
"In a market-driven league, talent goes to the team that is most willing to pay for it, which is usually related to its fan base." Baird said. "In Cuba, it goes to the team that has a larger population. In both cases, the result is imbalance among the teams in their ability to win games."
Balance in Cuban baseball did improve in the last decade, Baird found, as top stars of the dominant Havana Industriales flocked to U.S. teams - Rey Ordóñez to the New York Mets, Livan Hernández to the Florida Marlins and Orlando Hernández to the Yankees.
"It may be," Baird said, "that defections and 'early retirements' in recent years have improved balance in the Cuban League - although I doubt the typical Cuban baseball fan would find much consolation in this."