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12 best Cuban-born players in MLB history

@williamfleitch
March 11, 2019

Wednesday's announcement that MLB and the MLBPA have reached an agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation to allow Cuban players to play in the Majors without having to defect is undeniably good news. The stories of players facing mortal peril attempting to travel to the United States are terrifying, even

Wednesday's announcement that MLB and the MLBPA have reached an agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation to allow Cuban players to play in the Majors without having to defect is undeniably good news. The stories of players facing mortal peril attempting to travel to the United States are terrifying, even inhumane. The agreement assures that will never happen again, and it's going to make it easier for some of the best players in the world to play here -- and for all of us to watch them.

Even with the floodgates open at last, though, it's worth remembering the rich history that Major League Baseball already has with Cuba, not just in current stars like Yasiel Puig and Albertin Chapman, but also in some of the best players of the past 40 years.

In celebration of the new agreement, we took a look at the 10 best Cuban-born MLB players in history. It's difficult to imagine the sport without them; now, picture what the next 50 years will be like.

Before we begin, let's take a moment to remember the late Jose Fernandez, who has been gone for two years. Had his life not been tragically cut short at age 24, he surely would have been on this list -- and he maybe would have topped it before his career was done.

1. Luis Tiant, 1964-82
Tiant was one of the first casualties of Fidel Castro's reign in Cuba. His contract was purchased by the Indians mere months after the Bay of Pigs invasion, and he was not allowed to return home. He did not see his parents for 14 years.

Tiant made his big league debut in 1964, but he didn't become "El Tiante" until '68, when he changed his pitching motion into the wild contortions that would comprise his signature windup. He posted a 1.60 ERA in that Year of the Pitcher. And upon joining the Red Sox three years later, he had his greatest success, including a 1.91 ERA in '72. In '75, he nearly secured the Sox a World Series championship all by himself, winning both games he pitched. He is the subject of the terrific documentary "The Lost Son of Havana," and he was even on an episode of "Cheers." And seriously, that windup!

2. Rafael Palmeiro, 1986-2005
Obviously, Palmeiro's Congressional testimony and subsequent failed drug test changed the way we'll talk about him forever, but it really is worth remembering just how fantastic a career he had. Palmeiro remains one of only six players to reach both hallowed marks of 500 homers and 3,000 hits -- Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray, Jose Pujols and Alex Rodriguez are the others -- and it's a testament to his remarkable consistency. Palmeiro played at least 152 games every year except two from 1988-2004. He was on pace to do the same at age 40, until that positive test abruptly ended his career.

Palmeiro attempted a comeback last season, and he even hit a homer for the Cleburne Railroaders of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball at age 53.

3. Tony Oliva, 1962-76
An absolute monster of a player who suffered only because his Twins teams never broke through and won a World Series, Oliva had a .304 career average and led the American League in hits five times. He won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 1964, and he finished second in AL Most Valuable Player Award voting twice, though his best season might have been '71, when he batted .337/.369/.546. Knee injuries derailed what should have been Oliva's golden years, but Minnesota has never forgotten him. There's a statue of him outside Target Field.

4. Tony Perez, 1964-86
Perez's Hall of Fame election may have had more to do with the number of years he hung around -- he didn't play more than 91 games in any of his final six seasons -- than how incredible he was at his peak. But then again, when you ask any of Perez's Big Red Machine teammates whether he belonged in Cooperstown, they'll tell you that he was the centerpiece of everything those teams had going on. He is the only Cuban-born player in the Hall.

Also, that longevity wasn't an illusion: At age 44, he won the National League Player of the Week Award in his final week as a player.

5. Jose Canseco, 1985-2001
Canseco certainly was no stranger to controversy during his time in the Majors -- who would have thought that "dating Madonna" wouldn't even make his top 10 of his craziest things? But it shouldn't be forgotten just how dominant he was. Sure, he's tied for 37th on the list of all-time home run leaders with 462. But our favorite Canseco fact is that he declared he would hit 40 big flies and steal 40 bases in 1988 -- something that had never been done in MLB history -- and then he went out and did it. He also holds the all-time record in forehead fielding. And from what we understand, it appears he also dabbled in writing.

6. Minnie Minoso, 1949-80
Yes, you are reading those dates correctly: Minoso famously played three games in 1976 and two in '80, at age 54, so he could play in five decades. They even toyed with the idea of giving him an at-bat in the '90s before then-Commissioner Fay Vincent put the kibosh on it.

Minoso was the first black baseball player in Chicago, and he made the first of his seven All-Star Game appearances in 1951, his first full season. He was a basestealer before it became popular, and he would get on base by any means necessary -- he led the AL in hit-by-pitches 10 times.

7. Bert Campaneris, 1964-83
Campaneris hit two homers in his big league debut for the A's in 1964, and while his game would not revolve around power, he never stopped announcing his presence with authority. Campaneris made six All-Star Game appearances, led the Majors in steals six times and won three World Series championships with Oakland from '72-74.

Our favorite achievement of Campaneris' came in his second season, when he not only played all nine positions in a game, but also threw ambidextrously, pitching left-handed against lefty hitters and right-handed against righties.

8. Livan Hernandez, 1996-2012
It was tough to choose between Livan and his brother, Orlando, but we ultimately went with Livan for longevity's sake -- we're not entirely certain Livan couldn't go out there and give us six innings right now. Heck, he's younger than Bartolo Colon!

Hernandez threw more than 200 innings for eight consecutive seasons, something you're not going to see too often these days, and he rattled around nine franchises in 17 seasons. Don't forget, too, that at age 22, Hernandez won the Most Valuable Player Award in both the NL Championship Series and the World Series during the Marlins' championship season in 1997.

9. Aroldis Chapman, 2010-present
We've always known that pitchers have thrown baseballs at ungodly speeds, but Chapman has had the good fortune of having his career overlap with the Statcast™ era, which can quantify precisely how ungodly those speeds are. For the first three years of Statcast™, Chapman threw so much harder than everyone else that he required his own filter. Jordan Hicks caught him last year, but Chapman, off-field issues aside, remains one of the most dominant relievers in the game and in recent baseball history.

10. Yoenis Cespedes, 2012-present
Cespedes might not have always been the most efficient player, and he has certainly bounced around quite a bit for a superstar, playing for four teams in just seven seasons. But even at age 32, there might not be a more purely enjoyable player to watch. Cespedes' natural exuberance for the game is infectious, and his raw talent, from his power to his throwing arm to some surprising speed, can still be overwhelming. And you have to appreciate a guy who celebrates his new contract by bringing a new car to Spring Training every day.

11. Camilo Pascual, 1954-71
Ted Williams said that Pascual had "the most devastating curveball in the American League for 18 years." It's tough to come up with a better endorsement -- or endorser -- than that. Pascual made five All-Star Games and played for both iterations of the Washington Senators. He's a shining example of resilience, too: After his first five years in the Majors, his record was 28-66. He would end up 174-170.

12. Leo Cardenas, 1960-75
Considered one of the best fielding shortstops of his time, Cardenas was no slouch with the bat either; he held the Reds' record for home runs by a shortstop until Barry Larkin broke it. He was right at the forefront of history when it came to Cuban baseball, reaching the Majors just before Fidel Castro closed the borders.

Cardenas was on the last Havana Sugar Kings team -- the year before they moved to Jersey City, N.J., which is quite a switch -- and he was even accidentally shot on the field by a Castro supporter firing guns in the air to celebrate the Cuban revolution. After that, Jersey City must have seemed rather calm.

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.