U.S. and Cuba in Trade Talks, for Ballplayers to Be Named Later
WASHINGTON — Getting from Cuba to the big leagues has never just been about 450-foot home runs and 100-mile-an-hour fastballs.
When the Mets’ slugging outfielder Yoenis Cespedes decided in 2011 that he wanted to leave his country to play baseball in the United States, he did what dozens of Cuban baseball players have done since the Castro government came to power more than 50 years ago.
Risking arrest as well as their lives, Mr. Cespedes and 10 members of his family fled the island in the middle of the night on a small boat. Twenty-three hours later, they arrived in the Dominican Republic. He then defected, setting him on the road to a multimillion-dollar contract with a major-league team. At least one relative who remained in Cuba was jailed, and Mr. Cespedes has never returned home.
But since the United States and Cuba announced last year that they would begin to normalize relations, the Obama administration and Major League Baseball have been quietly working to create an entirely new system that would end the arduous journeys — including midnight boat rides and defections from international competitions — that Cuban baseball players have had to endure. Not incidentally, it would create for the Obama administration a symbolic bridge between the two countries that would demonstrate how much the relationship had changed, and open up a new fan base and deep well of talent for major-league teams.
Last month, Major League Baseball’s top lawyer, Dan Halem, met in New York with Fidel Castro’s son Antonio, a senior international baseball official who is also the Cuban national team’s doctor, to express baseball’s interest in overhauling the arrangement for players.
Several baseball officials also traveled to Cuba in October to examine the fields and other facilities, as they determine whether Major League Baseball can play games there this spring.
Major League Baseball would ultimately like to have an orderly system that would allow teams to scout and sign players there. Once the players were signed, Major League Baseball would like the players and their families to be given visas for travel between the two countries.
Obama administration and baseball officials said they had received some indications from the Cuban authorities that they would be willing to send their players to the majors. But some experts on Cuba said they would be surprised if the Cuban government ever allowed players to go to the United States to play professionally.
A message left at the Cuban Embassy in Washington, seeking comment, was not returned.
To allow Major League Baseball to conduct business in Cuba, baseball and the Obama administration would have to navigate a maze of rules and procedures overseen by the Treasury and State Departments.
The United States and Cuba have begun normalizing their relations, but the American embargo against Cuba still exists. For it to be lifted, the Republican-controlled Congress would need to vote to end it — something that it has shown little interest in doing.
But the talks alone carry heavy symbolic significance for President Obama’s push for a thaw in the relationship between the two nations after more than 50 years of Cold War hostility, in part, by emphasizing the common threads that bind Americans and Cubans. Baseball is woven tightly into the national identity of both countries, and even over decades of animosity, the United States and Cuba have played each other in international competitions like the Olympics.
“We very much support baseball being a part of the opening between the United States and Cuba,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “It’s an institution that is revered in both countries, and insofar as we are deepening our people-to-people ties with Cuba and rebuilding bridges between our two societies, clearly Major League Baseball has a role.”
Mr. Rhodes, who was one of two senior White House officials who secretly negotiated with the Cuban government to forge the December deal to normalize relations, said the two sides had often spoken of baseball when they met for the talks.
Cuban players like Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets have had to endure arduous journeys to reach the United States. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times
“The Cubans take a lot of pride in their baseball players,” said Mr. Rhodes, a Mets fan who said his team would not be in the World Series without Mr. Cespedes, one of 18 Cubans playing in the major leagues. “It’s a people-to-people bridge.”
Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball since January, has made revamping the current arrangement one of his top priorities.
As a first step, Major League Baseball would like to ensure that the Cuban players’ passage to the United States no longer presents the kind of obstacles faced by the Mets outfielder. Besides the dangers of the boat trip, some players have been kidnapped, as well as exploited by smugglers with ties to drug cartels. In 2014, a man pleaded guilty in federal court in Florida for smuggling Yasiel Puig, the Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder, out of Cuba to Mexico in exchange for a significant portion of the contract he hoped to sign with a major-league team.
How many stars like Mr. Puig are still on the island is unclear. Some of Cuba’s best players have already defected and are playing in the United States, but general managers and scouts believe that dozens of players there are good enough to play in the majors. They believe that talent pool has been depleted by defections and the average player in the top Cuban league is most likely as good as a journeyman minor-league player in the United States.
Roberto González Echevarría, a professor of literature at Yale and the author of “The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball,” is skeptical that the Cuban government, in the end, would ever allow American teams to freely operate on the island and freely sign players.
“The regime has total control over players there and picks what teams they play for — the players have no freedom there,” Mr. González Echevarría said. “Why would they allow them to come to the United States? Some players are sent to Japan to play, but the players have no choice in it. This will be very difficult to do unless the regime changes.”
But the Cuban government does have an incentive to fix the system. When Cuban players go to play in other countries like Japan, its government is compensated. Right now, Cuba gets nothing in return when its players defect, and the defections are embarrassing and demoralizing.
While the Obama administration has made several moves to ease commercial, trade and travel restrictions with Cuba, the embargo has limited the scope of the changes Mr. Obama can put into effect. His advisers argue that the incremental shifts will eventually give way to a broad consensus that the embargo should be lifted, but they concede that the process will take time. Meanwhile, American businesses are operating in a realm of uncertainty.
In recent weeks, Major League Baseball — with the blessing of the White House — applied for a license to conduct business in Cuba through the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury, which enforces sanctions that prohibit any American money from going directly to the Cuban government.
Creating an exception for Cuban players is tricky, because a portion of their salaries would go directly to the government in Havana, thus violating the American embargo. If the government approves baseball’s request, the commissioner’s office would then need to negotiate the terms for signing players with the players association and the Cuban government.
“This is something that we believe needs to be fixed, but we certainly do not have the authority to do so on our own,” Mr. Halem, the baseball lawyer, said. “We’re cautiously optimistic that all the parties — the U.S. government, the Cuban government, us and the players’ union — will come together and find a solution and we will find a way to end the involvement of smugglers.”
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