By Yusseff Díaz
Since the untimely death of Peter Bjarkman in 2018, English coverage of Cuban baseball and the Serie Nacional seemed to be fading into oblivion. Then Phil Selig entered the picture. The Canadian born Selig has made some noise in the world of Cuban baseball in the recent with his very detailed videos and pictures of the Serie Nacional and Cuba’s national pastime as a whole.
The talented cinematographer has decided to venture into the world of writing with his new endeavor a website called Cubadugout.com, which delves into the every changing landscape of Cuban baseball. His page profiles some of the top players and prospects in Cuba, he also cover some of the island’s top minor league prospects.
Not only is Selig’s site informative and well put together, but the images and videos are top notch. Today not only was I able to catch up with the founder of Cubadugout.com, but I was also able to pick his brain about where he developed his affinity for Cuban baseball and what his page’s mission or goal happens to be.
Compare the talent level of
the now defunct Can-Am League with that of the Serie Nacional?
I’m not sure I’ve ever tried to draw a direct line but it is a fair question with the obvious ties between the leagues. I look at it more from the perspective that I don’t begrudge anyone who thinks. MLB is the only league worth following but if so, you’re missing a great game.
I enjoy both leagues and I want to see as many Cuban peloteros get as many opportunities to make money playing baseball as possible. The CanAm/Frontier is a great opportunity that way. It also represents my greatest chance to connect and follow without traveling.
Now, maybe closer to the original question, we’ve seen veteran Cuban players play in the league and win batting titles and contribute to championships. Ironically we have seen players that are now in Major League pipelines tour the league and underwhelm. I think it points to how prospecting players is such a crap shoot and how the game of baseball is about execution in the flow of the game. To me both leagues point to the fact that enjoying baseball is often about being in the stadium, in the moment, soaking in the other elements of the experience but keeping your eyes peeled because you just might be watching the future of baseball at the top level.
You covered Alexander Malleta and Donald Duarte during their time with the Ottawa Champions in 2016. Describe that magical championship season in your own words.
That summer represented the AHA moment for what was to become Phil In The Blanks now Cubadugout. At that point I had been venturing to Cuba for a few years and had started to see how my photos were connecting to a growing online community.
The up close access I had made me start to think that maybe I was seeing something unique or had unique access. Looking back I wish I had been a little more aggressive in gaining direct access to the players but I think as my work has progressed the players respect the fact that I am not pushy and in some ways let the photos speak for themselves.
I originally was supposed to be in New York with the team when they ultimately clinched but unfortunately had professional demands that prevented that from coming to fruition. I am proud to count Alexander Malleta as a friend now and have since connected with him multiple times since that season and many of the top circulating photos of him are from my shutter. Duarte was gregarious in our interactions but unfortunately I haven’t been able to reconnect just yet. As Cubadugout moves forward I realize there are no coincidences and suspect that the story will bookend someday.
Being that you are Canadian, what led you to cover Cuban Baseball?
My introduction was in Cienfuegos and as a photographer with camera in tow I had captured some photos of Jose Abreu. We know what he has done since day 1 in MLB but those photos from Cuba started to gain some traction online. I returned to the island and when I could tried to test myself as an artist shooting the thing I love to shoot which is baseball. Each subsequent trip found me capturing some unique images that weren’t otherwise prevalent online.
The internet has exploded on the island and I am fascinated by how many people like to view my images but connecting with the expat community and outlets such as Pelota Cubana played a huge role as well. Much of it has happened organically but also via people connecting digitally but then in real life knowing that we share a passion. At points I ask myself the same question and think more than anything my passion shines through and people appreciate that.
You are an established cinematographer, what led you to
become a writer?
Well if I am established, I’m not necessarily sold that I am, I think it is because of the work I have done surrounding Cuban baseball. I think in todays media landscape you have to be or at least aim to be multi-faceted. I wish I had more opportunities to visit, to shoot and to video baseball in Cuba.
I have tried to find a way to stay poignant in the sphere which has grown exponentially in demand while exhausting or stretching my digital assets. I have dabbled in writing to challenge myself and to hopefully share my experiences. My lack of Spanish (I’m working on it though) has held me back in some ways but I thinkthe photos/videos connect universally while my writing connects me to an
audience in English that still sees Cuba as being under a cloak of darkness.
In your many trips to Cuba name on thing that stood out to you about the Serie Nacional?
I think what stands out is how similar the Cuban baseball fan is to any other baseball fan in the world yet how unique they and the experience itself are. If it is possible to serve two masters my work connects me both to the Cuban on the island and the World baseball fan intrigued by the next big thing.
That dichotomy to me is also a huge part of Cuban baseball. As I mentioned before I want to see every player get the biggest chance to succeed they can, but I also want to see the game thrive on the island. If those two objectives are incongruent I understand. I love the fact I have seen future MLB stars before they made it but I also love to see the game played on the island and to follow the National Series and respect it’s deep legacy and importance on the island.
What needs to change in Cuban baseball for it to return tothe forefront?
Cuba’s dominance on the international front was bound to end and in a way the fact the rest of the world has caught up is a positive for the game of baseball overall. I hold out some hope that some version of the 2018 agreement with MLB can come to fruition.
The idea that top level prospects can find a legal path to MLB and that money can flow into Cuban baseball infrastructure would be a positive development. I think keeping young Cuban stars in Cuba until 25 would strengthen the National Series and would also decrease the number of players leaving on a lark or based on bad advice. The creation of legal passage would also increase the likelihood of a unified Cuba in competitions such as the WBC.
I am not sold that a unified Cuba returns to previous dominance because as mentioned I think the world has caught up. A stronger Cuban squad competing against the rest of the World baseball world would make for renewed pride and a better game overall.
You’ve interviewed many players in Cuba. Which interviews are your favorites?
My underwhelming Spanish skills hold me back but at the same time I love how I am able to communicate with so many. That can mean via photos and god bless google translate. In real life I think the connection is that I try in broken Spanish and my Cuban friends try in broken English and we meet somewhere in the middle.
My favorite interview though is always my next in that I think there is always something to be learned. I do look forward though to someday being able to converse fluently in Spanish and definitely have that set as a personal goal.
Where do you see yourself and cubadugout.com in five years?
Cubadugout to now is a labor of love and I am not naïve that that is all it may ever be, if so I can live with that, but I do hope it becomes much more. I will always try to tell the stories I have access to while trying to increase my access overall. The number of doors that have opened to this point in the relatively small actual opportunities that I have had and out of my own pocket inspire me to keep pushing forward. There is growing traction and interest from outlets to leverage my skills and access and if we can get past Covid-19 I think there are some interesting paths.
Personally I perpetually aim to prove to myself that I am what I claim to be as Canada’s top expert on Cuban baseball and expand my own knowledge base. I think if that is authentic it creates its own value and opportunities will follow. Worst case scenario I hope to take more photos in Cuba and avoid Canadian winters.