Safe at home: Cuba’s leading pelotero has no time for retirement

Carlos Tabares and his wife, Magdalis, in their home in Havana, Cuba.
Photo by Christian Triunfo

Story by Milton Posner and Christian Triunfo ·

HAVANA, Cuba – For the first time in three decades, and perhaps for the last time in a while, Carlos Tabares is at rest.

He moves about his cozy, well-furnished home unhurried. His 13-year-old stepdaughter plays outside with the dog. His wife Magdalis, in the midst of preparing snacks, explains that the family adopted the dog off the street while it was pregnant. The week-old puppies doze together, sandwiched between the washer and dryer.

Pausing only to place the snacks on the dining room table, Magdalis makes her way to the couch, where her husband is watching highlights from his playing days on a wall-mounted flatscreen TV.

For Tabares, whose baseball career in Cuba spanned a quarter century and included some of the best play the island has ever seen, the highlights of the past are numerous. But he stands at a crossroads for his future. His retirement last January marked the end of his playing career for the Industriales – Havana’s historically dominant baseball club – and he’ll take over as the team’s manager the season after next.

His legacy in Cuba is as much about what he did on the field – batting .307 and scoring over 1,000 runs in 25 years – as what he didn’t. At a time when Cuban stars can earn tens of millions of dollars by defecting to the United States, he chose to stay in Cuba.

By now he’s moved to the table, the pictures of his hitting and fielding behind him creating an unbroken Tabares wall. His medals, his jersey, a bat adorned with his statistics and his 100th home-run ball feature prominently.

“Baseball in Cuba will never go away,” Tabares says in Spanish. “It will always be present. There are 11 million Cubans and so many of them love baseball.”

His decision to play out his career in Cuba endeared him to baseball fans across the island. It also might make him among the last of a dying breed.

A player of intensity and grace

Carlos Alberto Tabares Padilla was born July 8, 1974, in Vedado, a comfortable Havana neighborhood. He started playing baseball when he was 8 and was soon recruited by a local coach.

“I got picked up off the street. They just handed me a bat and watched me hit,” he remembers. “But it wasn’t my hitting skills that impressed them; it was my speed.”

Tabares attended multiple sports prep schools during his teenage years, culminating in multiple tryouts for Cuba’s under-23 national team, the national team’s feeder. He wasn’t offered a spot, but, in a gesture of pity he’d never forget, the team gifted him a jersey with the number 56. Tabares adopted the number and embarked on his professional career.

In 1992, a 17-year-old Tabares made the Industriales, the seven-time champions of the Cuban National Series. Founded in 1961, it comprises 16 teams that play a 90-game season during the winter months.

Tabares responded to the pressure with stellar play, thrilling fans with his savage line-drive hitting and fleet-footed base running. In the outfield he was a revelation, roaming centerfield at Havana’s Latin-American Stadium with unbridled intensity and unmistakable grace.

Andy Vargas, who has broadcasted Industriales games since the 1995-96 season, says he was drawn to Tabares from the start.

“That [1996] playoff season was when I really knew he was a new kind of player, a player made for Cuban baseball,” Vargas says in Spanish. “He has this spark, this way of thinking about the game that I have never seen in any other ballplayer. The way he’s united the players, the way he’s restructured the style of play.”

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A collection of awards, medals and photos won by Tabares throughout his career. Photo by Christian Triunfo

That same season, Tabares became team captain, a role he retained until his retirement.

“That’s like being the coach, but even more important to an extent,” he says. “You need to be the source of motivation, of advice and of virtually anything your teammates need.”

Despite his young age, Tabares displayed mature communication and team-building.

“He asks a lot of his teammates, but he simultaneously has developed tremendous trust with every single one of them,” Vargas notes. “I’ve witnessed this man sit down and engage with each of his teammates even when he had a cast on and was sitting on the bench.”

Tabares even studied psychology to improve his captaining skills.

“I’ve been able to get my teammates out of some pretty dark places thanks to the things I’ve learned,” he remembers. “To take a friend, to take a teammate who is in a slump and get them to focus only on that ball, it’s so incredible. It helps them just as much as it helps me.”

Tabares’ outstanding all-around play and clubhouse leadership helped Industriales win five championships, bringing the team’s total to a league-leading 12.

“He’s tremendously charismatic and he just knows how to play,” 32-year-old Industriales fan Frank Herrera says. “Tabares is probably every Cuban’s favorite baseball player. He’s just been present in Cuban culture as long as I can remember.”

Tabares also takes great pride in his play for Cuba’s national team, which he first made at age 21. He represented Cuba in a number of national tournaments, with Cuba’s gold-medal performance at the 2004 Athens Olympics proving to be his greatest triumph.

The Games also brought arguably Tabares’ most famous moment. In a game against Australia, Tabares ran down a long fly ball and leapt toward the wall attempting to snag it. The ball bounced out of his glove and hit the wall before he caught it again. The umpire incorrectly ruled the play an out.

“At the Athens Olympics, my legacy will always be faking an out that I had actually dropped,” Tabares says with a proud grin. “Regardless, it was one of the most incredible experiences to receive a gold medal before such a large audience.”

Olympic gold is the crowning jewel of Tabares’ legacy on the world stage. That legacy’s domestic counterpart was forged in baseball’s business side.

The Chicago Cubs offered Tabares a $5 million contract in 1998. The Cincinnati Reds upped the ante with a $6 million proposal in 2003. Tabares declined both.

His decision to reject fame and wealth in the States was unusual then. It’s almost unheard of now.

Video reported and produced by Danny Mortimer 

Every year, hundreds of promising young ballplayers defect from Cuba. Their first choice of destination is Major League Baseball (MLB) in the United States, but many wind up playing in the American minor leagues, as well as leagues in Asia and Latin America. All provide salaries that Cuba, with its smaller population and economy, could never match.

“Before 2013, I would be making around 400 or 500 Cuban pesos ($16 to $20) a month,” Tabares recalls. “Athletes weren’t listed as athletes on their payroll. I could be a plumber or a carpenter on paper, but every day I’d be out there playing ball.”

In 2013, Cuba implemented a new system. Players now receive a lifelong monthly payment for each medal they win in international competition. Tabares, whose résumé includes gold medals in the Olympics, Pan American Games and Baseball World Cup, among others, receives the equivalent of almost $10,000 per year in these payments. This is in addition to the salary he drew playing and the one he’ll draw managing.

But, medal payments or not, Cuba’s salaries pale in comparison to those that defectors have earned abroad. Defection often involves being smuggled off the island and establishing residence in a third country. Defecting directly to the U.S. forces the player into the MLB’s amateur draft, while defecting to a third country allows them to maintain free-agent status.

The best free agents – including Aroldis Chapman, Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig – have signed multiyear deals worth tens of millions of dollars apiece. As MLB salaries have continued to skyrocket, defections have increased, something Vargas, the broadcaster, claims “has affected the quality of play in this country tremendously.”

Tabares isn’t entirely convinced; he compares defecting to “playing the lottery” and says that “it isn’t always worth it.”

“The problem is that a lot of players don’t look at the context of differing economies,” he says. “You may be paid a lot more in another country, but as an average player you’ll also have to spend a lot more on your home, insurance, on so many things that are provided to us here in Cuba.”

Most professional athletes, regardless of where they play, compete for their countries of birth in international competition. Cuba’s policy – reaffirmed in 2016 by Antonio Becali, head of the Cuban Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation – is that defectors cannot play for the national team.

“It’s unfortunate to see my friends who have gone to the major leagues, like [Dodgers outfielder] Puig, have to stay out of the national team games,” Tabares remarks. “They would make such a spectacular addition to the team, and it just saddens me to know that they can’t be a part of it all.”

But national pride wasn’t the only thing keeping Tabares home.

“Family always comes first,” he states. “Nothing beats family.”

The example was set by his father, Alfredo Tabares Verdura, whose presence Tabares says never left him. The elder Tabares, himself a ballplayer, retired in his 30s when his wife was pregnant with Carlos’ brother.

When Tabares turned down the MLB contract offers, he cited his father’s failing health as a key reason both times.

“When I let the teams know I wouldn’t be going to the U.S., they understood that I wanted to take care of my father,” he notes. “They even said they respected it. Even if my father hadn’t been sick, I just don’t think I could have left my family behind.”

All these years later, his stance hasn’t changed.

“A lot of people think I made a grave mistake by not going to play in the U.S.,” he says. “I don’t regret it for a second. Every day I wake up and see my wife, see my kids, think of my mom, think of my dad and I know I did not make a mistake.”

A new beginning

On January 11, 2018, a capacity crowd of 55,000 packed into Latin-American Stadium to witness Carlos Tabares’ retirement ceremony. More than 11,000 more cheered from outside the park.

Tabares, who had spent the season as third base coach, was dressed in a grey suit with matching shoes and tie. As thousands of phone flashlights looked toward the flower-lined field, Tabares turned to his former teammates, who’d lined up to give their captain a farewell hug.

“The day I retired was very emotional for me,” he says. “I feel like I could keep going. I stole home when I was 43 years old. But my legacy is something important as well. Now was the right time.”

The timing of his retirement was no accident. The man who took the national team’s number 56 consolation jersey and made it famous retired during the National Series’ 56th season. That he retired with 1,956 hits was pure coincidence.

The ball Tabares hit for his 100th National Series home run. Photo by Christian Triunfo

“We’ll miss seeing the number 56 at center field,” Vargas says. “Tabares is a role model on and off the field. Ask any kid playing baseball, even if they’re a pitcher, they’ll all tell you they want to be just like Tabares.”

Tabares looked forward to his time off. But the vacation wouldn’t last.

The Industriales’ manager, Victor Mesa, announced in May that he would not return next season. Tabares will continue as third base coach during the 2018-19 season while former Industriales second baseman Rey Anglada heads the team. Tabares will take over from Anglada the year after with some work to do.

The Industriales finished sixth last season, a far cry from their historically dominant play.

“There is a lot that needs to be done,” Tabares concedes. “The team is currently suffering in pitching. But there is so much potential, so much talent. I know that in little time, I’ll be able to mend that hole.”

He’ll draw on his 16 years as team captain for the managerial wisdom he’ll need, remarking that “winning well is what really matters.”

“One of my greatest passions is to communicate with my teammates, to earn their respect and to lead the team to a victory,” he states. “Ensuring discipline is another important part of it. I was already these guys’ captain, so I anticipate twice the amount of respect I once got. I’m going to use it to make the team much better,” he says.

“I feel like I was born to play, but just the same to coach.”

A legacy of loyalty and pride

But for now, Tabares, renowned for his blazing speed in the outfield, is standing still. He’s joined his wife on their couch, an official-looking FC Barcelona jersey in his hand.

But the jersey isn’t real. The name written on the back, Tabares, never played soccer for Barcelona. Nevertheless, under the name, in bright yellow numbers, is the ever-present 56.

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Tabares shows off his custom-made FC Barcelona jersey. Photo by Christian Triunfo

That number represents a legacy, one that transcends the bases Tabares swiped, the homers he belted, the catches he made and the titles he won. It is a legacy imprinted in the minds of Cuba’s baseball fans, a legacy not just of tremendous play, but of loyalty and pride.

“Tabares would have been incredible anywhere he went,” 18-year-old Eduardo Miranda says in Spanish from the University of Havana’s athletic field. “I’m glad he stayed in Cuba, though, because he’s done so much for baseball on this island. He got us a gold medal, he’s led the team I love to a ton of victories and he’s given me great memories with my father at games.”

Tabares says his managerial goals won’t change from his goals as a player. If success is winning, he’s absolutely right. But the definition of success is changing.

“Soccer is the most prevalent sport in Cuba right now. That’s all we get live on TV,” Miranda asserts. “A lot of the young [baseball] talent from Cuba has been leaving the country, so the quality of baseball has declined.”

But Tabares, the most recognizable baseball figure on the island, isn’t ceding his game’s dominance.

“Just because soccer is being broadcast live by the government doesn’t mean that soccer is the new sport of the island,” he says. “Baseball needs the same boost, and its popularity will spark again.”

This is arguably the biggest challenge that Tabares, in line to lead Cuba’s foremost baseball dynasty, must overcome. He’s up for it. He loves the game too much.

“Baseball is the most gorgeous game in the world. The appeal of this game is universal,” he says. “There is soccer, there is basketball, and they rival baseball in this country. But there is something about baseball that unites the Cuban people.

“It’s our game.”

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