Reynaldo Cruz Diaz was in his element.
One recent weekend, the Cuban journalist was reporting on a vintage baseball game at Muzzy Field in Bristol.
Players wore historic uniforms, used authentic equipment and followed the rules of the late 19th century.
“I’m pretty sure that when I post the pictures and all that, people in Cuba are going to look at it and say, ‘wow’,” he said.
Cruz recently fled Cuba amid increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and several targeted threats. His case is scheduled to come before an immigration judge in November.
“I would love to continue helping my country. I am a proud Cuban,” he said. “But one of the things that got me really hard was when I read Mark Twain had said, ‘Patriotism is defending your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.’”
Cruz launched an online baseball magazine in Cuba about a decade ago called Universo Beisbol or Baseball Universe. He was working at the time as a photographer at a local Communist Party newspaper.
“People didn’t have information about the major leagues,” Cruz said. “And there’s a gap in Cuba when it comes to the history of the game. The government has done a very, very ‘good’ job – and ‘good’ between quotation marks – about keeping people from knowing the history of baseball in Cuba before the revolution happened.”
A ‘distinctive kind of baseball’
Baseball on the island has long been linked to nationalist liberation struggle. The game arrived in colonial Cuba in the late 1860s and became the island’s most popular sport, effectively replacing Spanish bullfighting.
Pro ball was integrated in Cuba at a time when Black athletes in the U.S. were barred from the major leagues. U.S. teams sent players to Cuba during the offseason, and white and Black athletes competed freely together.
But that changed after Fidel Castro came to power, said Kit Krieger, founder of Cubaballtours. He’s taken fans to Cuba more than 20 times.
“The revolution by 1960 severs the relationship between the major leagues, or organized baseball in the United States, and Cuba – and Fidel Castro starts the National Series,” Krieger said. “It is a very distinctive kind of baseball, what I came to call a parallel baseball universe.”
It was also a powerhouse baseball universe. For decades, Cuba’s top teams dominated in international competition. Cruz wrote all about it. Universo Beisbol was picked up by Major League Baseball’s MLBlogs. And in 2015, he was given MLB credentials. When President Barack Obama attended a 2016 game on the island, Cruz was the only Cuban photojournalist allowed on the field.
Reporting on baseball, then threats
At the same time, he began having trouble at his day job.
“Because I was all against censorship,” he said. “And there were times in which something happened and they didn’t want to publish it. And there were times in which they published things that were not accurate.”
Cruz left the paper in 2017. He began volunteering on a popular TV show that featured Cuban baseball history and sharp commentary on the state of the game.
Krieger said the authorities never went as far as to erase all news of ballplayers who’d defected to the U.S., “but there’s no doubt that until very recently the Cubans who left were attacked and did not enjoy the reputations they deserved.”
Cruz started posting images of daily life to Instagram: long lines for food, a lack of basic goods.
“At some point I think I lost the filter because I was no longer working in a local newspaper,” Cruz said. “And I didn’t know where the radar of censorship was.”
In 2020, Cruz called out local media for not recognizing Jose Abreu, a major leaguer in the U.S. who went on to win Most Valuable Player. That’s when Cruz said he got the first in a series of threatening phone calls.
“The guy who called didn’t identify himself,” Cruz said.“He just said, ‘Reynaldo Cruz?’ And I said, ‘Yes. Who’s this?’ And he said, ‘We’re calling you to let you know that you should watch what you’re publishing in that little magazine of yours.’
“And then he hung up.”
Cruz wrote very little about baseball after that.
A harrowing journey to Connecticut
July 2021 brought huge anti-government protests across the island. The Cuban government responded with a wave of repression, detentions and arrests. Though Cruz had not reported on the protests, he said the surveillance got worse.
“I had the sense of being followed all the time,” he said.
In January, Cruz joined this year’s record-breaking number of Cubans fleeing to the U.S.
He traveled first to Mexico. Then, alone, he crossed the Rio Grande. He turned himself in, was detained for 18 days, and friends helped him get to Connecticut.
Gaining legal status is more difficult than it once was for Cubans. But Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said Cuban asylum rates are still pretty high – at about 55%.
“Now, 55% may not seem like a lot,” Soto said. “It’s only about half. But compared to Mexicans, only 15% of Mexican cases receive asylum. Honduras, it’s 18%. El Salvador is 20%. And Guatemala is 19%.”
While he waits for word on his asylum case, Cruz said it feels good to be writing and photographing baseball again.
“The energy. The passion of the players,” he said. “Seeing a group of people going for the same goal. Seeing something as humbling as a sacrifice bunt that you practically, you let yourself get killed to help your cause.
“That is kind of poetic when you look at it that way.”