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Cuba’s ESPA’s, Escuelas Superiores para el Perfeccionamiento Atletico, roughly translated to English as Superior Schools for Perfecting Athleticism, were the Cuban equivalent of American high school, travel team, rookie ball, and little league baseball all rolled into one. They had the highest level of participation of all the organized baseball leagues in Cuba, the greatest rivalry outside of the national professional league, and they were the best organization for identifying quality players. Children that practiced specialized sports like swimming and gymnastics usually began attending the ESPA’s when they were twelve to thirteen years old, and children who played more generalized team sports usually were incorporated when they were between fifteen and sixteen years old. A small number of athletes would migrate from one sport to another before graduating. Each of Cuba’s provinces had its own ESPA, which operated as boarding schools, and each had between five-hundred and six-hundred full time student athletes. The baseball season ran from May through August, and featured both intramural games, provincial games, and a national championship, with teams playing close to a hundred games during the entire season. The regular season ran from May through June, and the Club de Campeones, Champion’s Club, ran from late June through August.

Because of disinterest and bad management on the part of the Cuban government, their decline was slow but steady. The ESPA’s were started in 1965 by order of Fidel Castro with the goals of identifying and training young athletes, especially late bloomers, and they evolved into one the best parts of the Cuban sport’s system. The ESPA’s began to decline in the 1990’s during Cuba’s “special period” and they were closed in 2012. Though not perfect, they were the best part of the Cuban sports system, and their demise has had a negative impact on Cuban baseball. The school level baseball league had the most participation of any sports league in Cuba, and was very popular with Cubans. Its’ demise has had a negative impact on sports at every level, but especially on the island’s young players, and more importantly, on the development and identification of potential professional players. Lack of financing was one cause, but disinterest by government authorities also had a hand in the disappearance of the ESPA’s. The only nationally organized youth baseball being played in Cuba today are the Provincial Championships, which feature very limited play between teams, with most teams usually playing only seven to eight games during the championship series.

There are currently no plans to replace the ESPAs, and even if there were, any new version would require both the political and financial backing that were absent in the previous incarnation. If the sport of baseball is going to keep its current structure in Cuba, then the ESPA’s must be reconstituted, and they must receive backing from the highest authorities, and a serious financial commitment by the Cuban government.

We offer small group baseball-oriented people-to-people tours of Cuba, contact us at sales@mambitours.com or frank@cubatraveltrips.com.

By KMOA & Frank Gonzalez

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