Cuban catcher defects in Miami after World Baseball Classic game at loanDepot park

Iván Prieto González, who was the bullpen catcher for Cuba’s World Baseball Classic team, stayed in Miami after Sunday’s game against the United States.

Just hours after playing in the World Baseball Classic in Miami, Cuba’s national baseball team took an early-morning flight back to the island on Monday — a quick return home in line with the Cuban government’s desire to prevent defections by its athletes.

It didn’t totally work: The official Cuban baseball delegation returned to the island one player short.

Iván Prieto González, the catcher in the Cuban team bullpen helping pitchers warm up, didn’t show up at Miami International Airport for the team’s flight to Havana, defecting to the U.S. instead.

Prieto, a catcher for the Alazanes de Granma team in Cuba’s National Series, had been chosen by the Cuban Baseball Federation for the bullpen catcher role. He played eight seasons on the island with teams from the provinces of Holguín and Granma.

He was picked up by his brother at the Miami-area hotel where the Cuban delegation was staying hours after Sunday’s game, according to MLB reporter Francys Romero, who was among the first to report the defection.

Read more: Cuban catcher defects after World Baseball Classic. What does it mean for his pro ball chances?

Prieto was not immediately available for comment. His decision might mean he won’t be able to reenter Cuba for five years, as the Cuban government punishes those who abandon official delegations.

His defection, however, did not prevent a carefully choreographed political display of support for the team when it returned to the island, adding to criticism that Cuban authorities had used the team featuring athletes playing in Cuba and other foreign leagues, including Major League Baseball, for propaganda purposes.

Read more: Cuba stirred the politics in Miami, but U.S. won on field, 14-2, gliding to WBC title game

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Ever since Fidel Castro abolished professional sports in the early 1960s, the Cuban government has used baseball, in particular, as a reflection of the so-called achievements of the revolution. More recently, the Cuban government rebranded the Cuba national team as “Team Asere,” a slang term akin to dude in Cuban Spanish, and made it a pillar of a propaganda campaign to appeal to national unity and encourage voters’ participation in the elections for the National Assembly on Sunday.

Read more: Cuba’s national baseball team’s game in Miami revives old political battles

The team members were first greeted at Havana’s international airport Monday by leader Miguel Díaz-Canel. Also attending a welcoming ceremony at the airport were Primer Minister Miguel Marrero and National Assembly President Esteban Lazo. State workers, students and members of political organizations were told to stand on the streets to greet the bus caravan taking the players from the airport to the Latinoamericano baseball stadium in Havana for another welcome ceremony.

Díaz-Canel called the players — who lost to the U.S. team Sunday 14-2 — “heroes … that faced a powerful rival with dignity and amid tremendous hostility by a group of haters who, in a grotesque and indecent way, wanted to overshadow the sporting spectacle.”

The “group of haters” refers to Cuban exiles and Cuban Americans who packed the loanDepot stadium in Miami and protested the team’s appearance in Miami.

In a rare display of unity, Cuban activists put aside differences and urged fans to use the game to send a message to the Cuban government in support of freedoms on the island and the release of political prisoners. And many in the community responded.

Read more: ‘Freedom always wins’: Cuban Americans in South Florida welcome catcher who defected

Dozens joined protests outside the stadium, and many more inside wore T-shirts and displayed signs with anti-government messages despite attempts by security officers to stop them at the entrances. After several Cuban-American politicians inquired about the attempts to thwart the displays, including Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, Miami City Commissioner Manolo Reyes and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, fans were allowed in again. However, some were handed white T-shirts to cover the political messages on their clothes. Once they were inside the stadium, videos published on social media show instances in which security personnel asked Cuban exiles to remove political signs.

Read more: Why Fox didn’t show many Cuba protests during WBC game. A look at what you didn’t see

The Miami Marlins organization, which oversees the stadium, declined to comment.

“It is exciting to see players and fans from countries all over the world express their national pride throughout the World Baseball Classic tournament,” Major League Baseball said in a statement. “The WBC’s policy, set long before this tournament began, prohibits political signage at all games in all venues to keep the focus on the competition on the field.”

In the end, the Cubans at the stadium made their point.

Chants of “Freedom,” “Down with communism,” and “Patria y Vida” — the title of the song linked to the protests on the island in 2021 — broke out several times during the game. Three protesters — artist and former political prisoner Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado, writer Carlos Manuel Alvarez and activist Antonio Fernandez — evaded security and ran onto the field showing a sign calling for the release of political prisoners in Cuba, while the crowd cheered in support. The three were detained, charged with trespassing and later released.

Cuban government officials blamed the crushing defeat of the Cuban team on what they said was a hostile environment created by Cuban exiles in Miami.

The U.S. team “played better and deserved the win, but there was another shameful factor: the pressure from the fascist core of Miami, with provocateurs, with people whose only homeland is money,” Abel Prieto, former Cuba Culture Minister and current head of the cultural institution Casa de las Americas, tweeted Sunday evening.

But many Cubans on the island watching the game, broadcast by state television, were ecstatic to see the Cuban leaders so openly questioned, an act punished with prison on the island.

“The dictatorship will not fall with this nor will the political prisoners be released tomorrow,” wrote a Cuban activist who posted anonymously on Twitter for fear of government reprisals. “But even so, I am going to be one of the many millions of Cubans who are going to sleep today dreaming that freedom is not that far away and that if we have anything, it is the support of our exiles. “

Miami Herald sports reporter Jordan McPherson contributed to this story.