Kitchener Panthers GM scouting in Cuba

Kitchener Panthers GM Mike Boehmer, left, poses with Kitchener MP Bardish Chagger, second from right, along with Panthers manager Luke Baker and Cuban players Yorbis Borroto (35), Yuen Soccaras in middle, and Miguel Lahera (42). Missing is Yoennis Yera. Photo by Dan Congdon

Kitchener Panthers GM Mike Boehmer, left, poses with Kitchener MP Bardish Chagger, second from right, along with Panthers manager Luke Baker and Cuban players Yorbis Borroto (35), Yuen Soccaras in middle, and Miguel Lahera (42). Missing is Yoennis Yera. Photo by Dan Congdon

Oct. 9, 2019

By Danny Gallagher

Canadian Baseball Network

Mike Boehmer is on a scouting trip to Cuba while taking in some great weather at the same time.

Boehmer has been travelling to Cuba for 25 years mostly for holidays but the last few years, he has been adding another reason.

He is the general manager of the Intercounty League's Kitchener Panthers and each off-season, he travels to the Caribbean country to firm up plans to get Cuban players to suit up for his team the following season.

Boehmer is currently in Havana, assessing players, who are participating in the first half of Cuba's highly competitive baseball season that involves 16 teams.

"The top four teams advance automatically to the second half with teams 5-8 playing a best-of-three Wild Card Series to determine the other two teams to advance so it's a good time to be here,'' Bohemer said in an interview. "Plus the All Star Game is Oct. 20 and I will meet with the Cuban Ministry of Sport and Education and The Cuban Baseball Federation to begin the process of bringing four top Cuban players to the Panthers in the spring.''

It just may happen that Boehmer will bring back the same four players the Panthers used this past season when they lost out to the Barrie Baycats in the league final: highly acclaimed shortstop Yorbis Borroto, along with pitchers Yoen Socarras, Yoenis Yera and Miguel Lahera.

"If we want the same guys, we can get them,’’ Boehmer said. “Once they are up here once, approval is much easier with visas. All four want to return. Over the years, we've had 10 different players.''

Just think that for decades, Cuban baseball players were not allowed to come to Canada unless it was for the Pan Am Games, Intercontinental Cup, world championships or other sanctioned tournaments.

"It was an old law. For a number of years, the Cuban government only handed out foreign contracts in other disciplines like soccer but baseball is a very special sport to the Cubans,'' Boehmer said. "They amended the law by giving out contracts for ball players.

"What we do with the Cuban Federation is all on the up and up and legal. The Cuban people and officials are courteous and professional. The first year we did it, it was a brand new law.''

Boehmer first got wind of the new law a few years ago when he heard that Quebec Capitales general manager Michel Laplante was bringing Cubans in to play in the Can-Am league.

"Borroto was the captain of the Cuban national team,'' Boehmer said. "In addition to being a helluva ball player and a leader, he's a real solid guy. He was a teammate at one time with Yuli Gurriel, now with the Houston Astros.''

Boehmer hasn't had any problems with possible defections but stressed that players aren't permitted to have family members with them during their time with the Panthers.

"I'm sure they would be more susceptible not to return to Cuba if their families were here.'',” Boehmer said. He admitted "it's a sacrifice'' for the players not to have their families with them and at the end of the playoffs, "all four were anxious and homesick.''

Boehmer stressed that the Panthers are using "mature'' players instead of 20-ish youngsters as another reason to restrict those who might want to stick around in Canada. Both Borroto and Lahera are 34, Socarras is 32 and Yera is 30.

"The kids would be susceptible to defecting,'' Boehmer said. "The maturity level between someone 21 and 31 is significant.''

The Panthers fly the players for free to Toronto round trip and they get picked up and dropped off at Pearson Airport. The players -- the maximum is four allowed under the league's import rule -- share a four-bedroom apartment at the University of Waterloo, do their own cooking and work out at the YMCA almost every day.

Although Boehmer wouldn't say what the Cubans are paid, one report said they receive $1,500 each per month.

"It's a small stipend confidential between the Cuban government and the players but I can tell you it's under that figure (above),'' Boehmer said. "It's not a lot of money but for them, it helps them out and their families.''

For four straight years, the presence of the Cubans hasn't helped the Panthers get over that hump of winning the IBL championship for the first time since 2001. The Panthers came close in August but they fell to Barrie in six games.

"We thought we had a good chance but Barrie has an extremely strong team,'' Boehmer said. "They tied Brantford for the all-time record of six consecutive championships.

“Looking back, they have a better hitting team than we do. We had 4-0 leads in the first two games and let them go. Give Barrie an inch and they capitalize.''

Danny Gallagher is signing copies of his book Genius Saturday, Oct. 12, 12-4, at Chapters Kennedy Commons in east-end Toronto.