Every few years, the same feeling of nostalgia returns for Yuli Gurriel and Aledmys Díaz.

Houston Astros infielders have defected from Cuba, abandoning teams representing the island on a trip abroad, so they can pursue their dreams of playing baseball at the highest level. Both have played multiple times in the World Series, earned millions in the United States, and been recognized for their individual achievements.

But whenever there’s a World Baseball Classic – the international tournament that brings together many of the best players in the world – Gurriel and Díaz could only watch their teammates leave spring training to don their country’s uniforms. of origin. Cuban players like them stay behind. With another edition of the international tournament scheduled for next spring, Gurriel and Díaz fear this situation could happen again.

“It’s sad,” Díaz, 31, said recently in Spanish. Gurriel, 38, added: “It kinda makes us want to not be there and not be able to do the same thing.”

The reason for their exclusion: The Cuban Baseball Federation does not allow players who have defected from the communist country to represent it in international competitions. The list of banned players has grown considerably since the first WBC in 2006, with many of Cuba’s top talents having left the island.

Cuban expats in the majors could form one of the best teams in the world. The roster could have stars like Astros designated hitter Yordan Álvarez, Chicago White Sox first baseman José Abreu and Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena. The pitching staff could include stars like the Yankees’ Nestor Cortes and Aroldis Chapman. And if Cuban Americans were eligible, the team could include Boston Red Sox slugger JD Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado and Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Alek Manoah.

So this year, current and former Cuban players, businessmen and lawyers formed a group to seek a solution. The goal of the Cuban Professional Baseball Players Association is to develop the best team of Cuban professional talent from around the world to compete in the WBC.

“We want all players who want to represent their country,” Díaz said. “Cuba is for everyone. It is not only for those who are in favor of the government or those who oppose it.

The association grew to 170 members spanning major and minor leagues and other foreign professional leagues, such as those of Mexico, Japan and Taiwan. He has a logo and jerseys — in the colors of the Cuban flag, but no flag — and has chosen a name for himself: Cubans, or Cubanos, an ode to the Havana Sugar Kings, the Cuba-based minor league team that played in AAA class. from 1954 to 1960.

Despite these efforts, the association and the players say they do not want to replace the Cuban federation, which the Trump administration says was part of the Havana government when it canceled a 2019 agreement between MLB and the federation that would have eased the path for players to compete in the United States without defecting. The association envisions a national team independent of the Cuban federation – but with an open door for players from the island.

“We represent Cubans around the world who want to see this and want to see a team of all professional players,” said Raisel Iglesias, 32, closer to the Los Angeles Angels, who led the charge among active Cuban players. , reaching out to them and sharing updates via WhatsApp. He later added, “And if possible, invite the players who are under the Cuban federation.”

Iglesias said, however, that getting such an offer accepted would be “really difficult”. Even though the World Baseball Classic is run as a joint venture between MLB and the MLB Players Union, the event is sanctioned by the World Baseball and Softball Confederation, the sport’s global governing body. And there is a system in place that prevents outside groups from forming national teams.

“If they want to be part of an event sanctioned by the WBSC, they have to respect the rules, namely that the national federations form the national teams,” said Riccardo Fraccari, the president of the confederation, during an interview. telephone from Switzerland. , where he is based.

Fraccari alluded to WBSC statute which states that only recognized members can select their national team and have “the exclusive right to represent the name, flag and colors of the country or territory”. He continued: “Otherwise they can do another tournament, which would be up to them and wherever they want, but not a world federation sanctioned event.”

(Fraccari pointed out that there are Cubans playing abroad, such as in Japan, who are allowed to return. They are, however, on loan from the Cuban federation, which takes part of their wages. Last month, the Cuban authorities agreed to allow their baseball players manage their own professional contracts with teams from foreign leagues. But a deal with MLB has not been revived.)

Although the Cuban federation did not respond to messages seeking comment, it blasted the Cuban association that came in April. In an official statementthe federation called the association’s goals “political, not sporting” and said the group was pressuring MLB and the players’ union to “usurp the place that rightfully belongs to the Cuban national team in the next WBC”

Mario Fernández, president of the association, said the group was willing to sit down and talk to the Cuban federation, but under certain conditions. First, he said, a public apology is deserved from the federation to the players who it says have been “offended and mistreated”.

“We’re not going to sit down and talk to them if that doesn’t happen,” said Fernández, a businessman who left Cuba at 28, founded a semi-professional league in Chile and now lives in the United States. “If they apologize and it won’t happen again, that’s a really good start. But we see that would be very difficult because of the politics involved.

Once a world power, the Cuban national team has fallen on hard times. He failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, and although he has appeared in all four editions of the World Baseball Classic, he has mostly struggled, finishing in second place in 2006 and out of all four. first in every edition since.

“Baseball in Cuba is bad,” said Chapman, 34, who played for the Cuban national team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. “It’s gone down a lot. The majority is gone and here.

Hoping to build a strong team that isn’t limited by baseball pros back home, the association chose Orlando Hernández, 56, a former pitcher who won four World Series titles, as general director. And for field manager, he chose Brayan Peña, 40, a former major league catcher who serves as minor league manager in the Detroit Tigers system.

Fernández said players outside of Cuba have been talking about finding a way to represent their island since the first World Baseball Classic. While previous efforts failed, he said things happened that made this push different, including non-players stepping in to help lead the effort; the Cuban government’s forceful crackdown on protests last year, which galvanized some players; and the number of top Cuban players in Major League Baseball continues to grow. (There were 23 Cuban-born players on major league rosters on Opening Day this season, tied with 2016 and 2017 for most.)

“It’s something we’re fighting for because we’re in the 21st century,” Díaz said, “and the Cuban federation doesn’t let Cuban players in the major leagues play for their country for maybe thinking differently. or for a moment to play freely and play where and when they want to play.

Last month, Iglesias and Fernández said the association met with Tony Clark, the head of the MLB players’ union, via videoconference. Last week, a handful of association representatives met in New York with a group of MLB officials led by commissioner Rob Manfred.

Fernández said the association is considering challenging the World Baseball and Softball Confederation, citing Article 3.1 of the governing body’s code, which prohibits discrimination on a variety of grounds, including “political affiliation.” Fraccari, the president of the confederation, who has had ties with Cuba throughout his career, said: “We don’t discriminate against anyone.

But knowing the uphill battle the association faces, Fernández and Iglesias said the group had discussed the possibility of at least fielding their team of Cubanos for exhibition matches, possibly against some WBC teams beforehand. to head for the competition.

Cortes, 27, said playing for his native country was part of his lifelong dream. He was born in Cuba but moved to South Florida before he was 1 year old after his parents won a visa lottery. Cortes, who is a US citizen, said he understands the situation is complicated, especially for players whose families have been abused in Cuba.

“It’s difficult what’s going on and what we have to do to play,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we have to do what we have to do to represent and show the world that Cuba is a power and that there are very good baseball players coming out of Cuba.”