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Major League Baseball and Cuba: A talent pipeline, franchise new home, or both?

The effort to restore full diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba will impact the baseball world as much as any. The possibilities and pitfalls are endless if major league teams can access one of the sport's richest talent pools and rabid fans. 

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    FILE PHOTO- Former US president Jimmy Carter (R) throws the first pitch in a baseball game beside Cuban President Fidel Castro (L) 14 May 2002 in Havana. President Obama's calls to restore diplomatic ties with the island nation could payoff for Major League teams trying to tap into Cuba's pool of talented baseball players.
    Adalberto Roque/FILE/AFP
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December’s news that the United States and Cuba would work to restore full diplomatic relations was a sign that time had finally begun to heal many wounds between the old Cold War adversaries.

The news also brought a great deal of excitement to one of the few institutions that Americans and Cubans have long seen eye-to-eye on – baseball.

Baseball is by far Cuba’s most popular sport and Cubans have a long, rich tradition of competing in Major League Baseball (MLB). The 19 Cuban-born playing in both the American and National Leagues this past season was the highest number since 1967 when there were thirty, according to the New York Times.

On Monday, ESPN broke news that the Boston Red Sox were exploring the the possibility of playing a series of exhibition games on the island this spring before the season kicks off. Secretary of State John Kerry, a Red Sox fan, was rumored to be involved with the talks, according to the report.

Currently nothing is formally scheduled and the Red Sox do not believe there is enough time before the start of the season to properly engage and receive approval from both the US and Cuban governments, as well as Major League Baseball to schedule any games, according to ESPN.

According to Sports Illustrated, the Baltimore Orioles would be a likely candidate to play against the Red Sox in Cuba because the organization has experience in doing so. Back in 1999, the Orioles played two exhibition games in Havana against the Cuban National Team before the end of the team’s spring training, according to the Baltimore Sun. The Cuban team came to Baltimore later in May of that year and played two exhibitions games as part of President Clinton’s effort to improve ties between the two countries.

Since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Cuba has been a black hole for Major League Baseball. When the Orioles went to Cuba in 1999, Mr. Castro had long conversations with then-MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and other league officials about MLB teams opening up baseball academies similar to those they now own and operate in the Dominican Republic, according to the New York Times. The best talent at these academies are offered contracts with signing bonuses to play entry-level baseball in North America.

However, MLB teams may have to tread lightly when it comes to courting the top Cuban talent. One major hurdle for Cuban players to clear is once they sign with MLB teams where does that leave their former Cuban club? Major league teams may be hesitant to let their high-priced talent go back home in the winter and compete in the Cuban League – a league that is viewed as rivaling the Japanese league for the second best league in the world – and risk injury, according to the New York Times. And this could ultimately leave the teams of the Cuban Series National on the outside looking in.

“I don’t think that will happen.” Peter Bjarkman, an expert on Cuban baseball told Fox Sports in regards to the establishment of baseball academies. “Normalizing relations means things like travel restrictions. I don’t see Cuba giving up its economic system or opening the door to exploitation by foreign corporations. It (the Cuban government) will still want 60 percent ownership on foreign [corporations] and complete control over its own athletes.”

Formerly, the only avenues for Cuban players to make it to the pros were to either defect and abandon their national team and their country during an international tournament, or more commonly, simply escape the island by boat to either Mexico or Haiti, like Los Angeles Dodgers star Yasiel Puig did, according to a story on MLB.com.

Upon arrival, the players are held in safe houses and a "front man" will call on their behalf and seek the highest price for the player's skills. The transporters of the player out of Cuba will often not release him to a legitimate agent until they are paid for their services, and in some cases the player will have to commit a percentage of future earnings to his transporters in exchange for his life's safety once he sets foot on a boat to leave Cuba, according to MLB.com.

Cuba is home to some 11 million ravenous baseball fans, therefore MLB may view the restoration of diplomatic ties as a chance to jump into an untapped revenue stream. 

"Major League Baseball is closely monitoring the White House's announcement regarding Cuban-American relations," Major League Baseball said in a statement. "While there are not sufficient details to make a realistic evaluation, we will continue to track this significant issue, and we will keep our Clubs informed if this different direction may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba."

Most inside the game know this will alter the sport on a global scale, according to Fox Sports. Some have begun to speculate it may be a matter of time before an MLB team, like the Tampa Bay Rays for instance, with a small fan base and older domed ballpark, will want to cash on the Cuban market and pick up a loyal fan base virtually overnight by moving to Havana, according to the New York Times. The island’s close proximity to Florida would not make for a travel burden, like with the NFL’s desire to put a team in London or the NBA’s dream of starting a division of European franchises.

Major League Baseball has had a presence on the island in the past. The Havana Sugarcanes were a minor league team in the International League, affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds from 1944-1960. The Brooklyn Dodgers would occasionally hold their spring training in Cuba in the 1930s and 40s, as well.

Political divides must be crossed before any of these matters are settled. But for Cuban baseball as an institution, any integration with the majors will be slow and be undertaken with a degree of skepticism.

“The near (term) future baseball relationships will be with Japan,” Mr. Bjarkman told Fox Sports.”I don’t think Cuba is ready to hand over its baseball to MLB.”

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