When Cionel Pérez heard about the phone calls circulating, he wanted to make sure he didn’t get one.
Coming off a rookie season in the Orioles’ bullpen, the 26-year-old southpaw knew his native Cuba was looking for players who had defected to represent the nation in the upcoming World Baseball Classic. For the first time in the history of the event, players from affiliated major or minor leagues will be able to play for Cuba.
But Pérez had no interest in being among them. When he learned of friends and former teammates being contacted about joining Cuba’s international baseball team, he sent four tweets in early December explaining his decision. The thread started with a photo of him playing in the Orioles uniform, against the backdrop of the Cuban flag and a landscape behind him.
“I chose not to participate in a government that calls me a traitor,” he wrote in Spanish, ending with: “I am Cuban, I feel for my people, I also suffer from everything that is happening in Cuba. I have a family, I have grandparents, I have uncles and I have cousins who still live in that prison. Saying no to representing my country hurts my soul, but I have my values and morals very clear”.
Pérez expanded on his tweets in a conversation this week with The Baltimore Sun. Beside his parents, wife, sister and brother-in-law, he defected in 2015, escaping a country he said “clipped my wings”. He signed with the Houston Astros the following year and made his major league debut in 2019 before being traded to Cincinnati in early 2021. After that season, the Orioles claimed Pérez on a waiver, and he spent the entire year in their bullpen, posting a 1.40 ERA which ranked as the second lowest in franchise history.
He would have been a useful player for Cuba in next month’s World Baseball Classic, which will feature Orioles outfielder Cedric Mullins (United States), outfielder Anthony Santander (Venezuela) and right tackle Dean Kremer (Israel). Yoán Moncada, Luis Robert and Yoenis Céspedes are among current and former major leaguers on Cuba’s roster.
“I fully respect and understand” others’ decision to play for their home country, Pérez said, but he was unable to do so.
“It’s hard to come from a political system that doesn’t work for your people,” Pérez said through the team’s interpreter, Brandon Quinones. “I didn’t feel it was the right decision for me to come back and participate when they took so much out of me and the country itself.
“It is very frustrating. I love my country and all my friends and teammates and people I have there, but for me, it doesn’t feel right to be part of a country that does so little for its people. Many people say that politics doesn’t affect sports or baseball, but in Cuba it does. They are very connected and it is unfortunate that this is the case.”
Pérez said that while he manages to stay in touch with the family he still has in Cuba, he has not seen them since he last returned to the country in 2018. He mentioned in his tweets that his family cannot attend his performances as a pitcher.
“Since I’ve been speaking very, very openly about human rights and the things that are happening there, I’ve been hesitant to go back to Cuba and visit them,” he said. “Just trying to avoid any repercussions because of what I said.”
Pérez said he believed that becoming a US citizen would make returning to Cuba possible and safer. His wife, Devora, recently became a citizen, and Pérez said he hopes it streamlines his own efforts, though he’ll go through the application process as needed if not.
It won’t change how he feels about how Cuba treats its citizens.
“People don’t have food,” Pérez said. “People don’t have basic needs. People often don’t have electricity for nine, 10 hours straight. People don’t even have soap to shower. There is a lot of general oppression. People protest in the streets, but if they see you recording or if they catch you protesting, they can arrest you for two, three days straight. Little things they take offense at.
“It’s very unfortunate that they just treat their people this way even if they don’t do anything wrong.”
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