Cuba and Major League Baseball Reach Players’ Agreement

Cuba and Major League Baseball Reach Players’ Agreement
Cuban boys playing baseball on a empty street in Old Havana.

In a historic agreement for the future of major league baseball and U.S.-Cuban relations, the Cuban Federation of Baseball (CFB) and the MLB announced this week that players from the island nation can now be recruited to join Major League teams without having to permanently leave Cuba. The comprehensive deal has been strongly endorsed by the Major League Baseball Players Association, but could still be scuttled by the Trump administration, which has sought to roll back Obama-era initiatives of positive engagement with Cuba.

Under the new accord, Cuba will allow Major League scouts to come to Cuba and recruit players who are part of the Cuban leagues. Players over 25 years of age who want to sign with a MLB team will be released, for a fee. Younger players would be eligible to join the MLB at the discretion of the Cuban Federation of Baseball. Cuban players who leave will not have to renounce their citizenship and will be eligible to return to their homeland in the off-season and play with Cuban teams.

Cuban players who have already left the country could also be signed, but only after a lengthy waiting period—an effort to dissuade players from defecting and risking the dangers of traffickers who have, in the past, preyed on Cuban baseball prospects and demanded huge ransoms as payoff to deliver players to the U.S. For example, when Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig defected in 2012, he was smuggled into Mexico, held for a $250,000 ransom for weeks, and threatened with having his arm or fingers chopped off with a machete before he was finally released. This year Puig helped lead the Los Angeles Dodgers to the World Series.

“The contract will contribute to stopping illegal activities like human trafficking that for years have put the physical integrity and life of many talented young Cuban baseball players at risk,” noted a statement released by INDER, the Cuban sports institute. The agreement, INDER said, established a “collaborative, non-political and stable relationship between the CFB and the MLB” that would guarantee the ability of Cuban players to “be able to play in the American professional Leagues without losing their residency in Cuba or their link to Cuban baseball.”

The MLB has long pursued an interest in recruiting Cuban players and using “baseball diplomacy” as a means to engage Cuba through sports. In December 1974, then Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn first approached Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with a proposal to play an exhibition game in Cuba between a U.S. and Cuban team. In secret memos, Kissinger’s aides urged him to use "baseball diplomacy" to promote a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, as he had used “ping-pong diplomacy” to advance an opening to China. “The Chinese ping-pong players were accepted by the U.S. public as a good way to break the ice between countries separated by decades of hostility,” one memo advised Kissinger. “Baseball with Cuba would serve a similar purpose.”

Not until March 1999 did a U.S. team finally play an exhibition game in Havana—authorized by the Clinton administration as part of its “people-to-people” diplomatic efforts to improve relations with the Communist government of Fidel Castro. The Baltimore Orioles beat a Cuban all-star team by a score of 3-2 in extra innings. In a rematch five weeks later in Baltimore, however, the Cubans clobbered the Orioles, 12-6.

As part of President Obama’s initiative to normalize relations with Cuba, the Tampa Bay Rays accompanied the president to Havana on his historic trip on March 2016. With Raúl Castro and Obama seated behind home plate, the Rays beat the Cuban national team 4-1.

Before Obama left office, he signed a presidential directive loosening restrictions under the embargo that prevented Cubans citizens from being paid for work in the United States. The authorization applied to numerous categories of Cuban professionals, including artists and professors, but provided the necessary legal opening for MLB officials to initiate comprehensive negotiations with the Cuban sports authorities to enable Cuban ball players to join the U.S. and Canadian teams in the big leagues. The accord announced on December 19 is similar to arrangements the MLB has struck with Japan, Korea and Taiwan to allow their best players to play in the Major Leagues as well as in the leagues of their home countries.

The agreement will require the consent of the Trump administration, which has abandoned a civil tone of engagement with Cuba. Major League Baseball has already spent over $2 million lobbying in Washington in support of the pact, Yahoo News reported, emphasizing its benefits to talented Cuban players and the sport of baseball.

"For years, Major League Baseball has been seeking to end the trafficking of baseball players from Cuba by criminal organizations by creating a safe and legal alternative for those players to sign with Major League Clubs,” stated the Commissioner of Baseball, Robert D. Manfred Jr.  “We believe that this agreement accomplishes that objective and will allow the next generation of Cuban players to pursue their dream without enduring many of the hardships experienced by current and former Cuban players who have played Major League Baseball."