When President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, made joint announcements signaling an end to the Cold War, the Communist island emerged the clear winner. In the forum of public opinion, the embargo was extremely unpopular, both on American soil and with neighbors in the hemisphere. It had become a public relations nightmare. And although Obama declared that the sanctions were “not working,” the proposed full diplomatic ties will do wonders for Cuba’s crippled economy.
Yankee tourists who were previously forced to visit Cuba through a third-party country, primarily Mexico, might now be able to fly directly to enjoy those pristine beaches and historic Havana. And those hand-made Cuban cigars? No worries about smuggling those across the border anymore. The result means big dollars for the tourism industry and badly needed jobs. Yet, the real financial windfall could come from the exodus of the island’s top baseball talent, which ironically has always been Fidel Castro’s pet peeve. Let me explain.
Ever since Castro nationalized professional sports in Cuba, quality athletes have been forced to defect to earn a decent living. While the hardships to gain freedom by well-known stars like Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu have been covered by the media, these and other players remain tight-lipped about their ordeals, fearing that their families will be put in harm’s way. But now, a new generation of Cuban “peloteros” might be subject to a different scenario.
If the Cuban government takes the high road and allows its athletes safe harbor to seek employment on the big stage, they will likely go back home in the off-season and bring hard currency with them, giving back to their native country. Who wouldn’t want to go home and hang out with their own people, their adoring fans? Sadly, that has never been an option in Cuba since the revolución.
With these new developments, players might also be able to sign major league contracts through the “posting system,” a policy currently in place for top talent from Japan, Korea and Taiwan. The winning bid for a valued Cuban prospect would be financially lucrative for state-run sports programs. The MLB commissioner’s office might even look into the possibility of regularly scheduled games in a major Cuban city. The timing is right for Raul Castro to seize the moment.
Still, all we can do is speculate for now. The MLB issued this statement after President Obama’s announcement of the change in the diplomatic relationship: “MLB will continue to track this significant issue and inform clubs about how the White House announcement may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba.” In other words: we’ll have to wait and see.
Recent 30 for 30 doc “Brothers in Exile” tells the story of Liván and Orlando “El Duque” Hernández’ defections to the U.S. to play in the MLB.
My personal belief is that change will be made in baby steps. Don’t expect big league teams to immediately build plush baseball academies in Cuba, similar to what has been done in the Dominican Republic. Scouts will not be allowed to scour the countryside for diamonds in the rough. That task will continue to be handled by enterprising sports agents like Joe Cubas and more recently, Jaime Torres. There will continue to be key “go-betweens” to bridge the gaps and gray areas. That’s just the way the ball bounces.
As these new, uncharted issues begin to gain traction, I think the ultimate goal for all parties should be to eliminate the ugly underworld presence that has plagued Cuban players over the last 25 years. No more death threats or extortion. No more human trafficking, coyotes or “lancheros.” After five decades of poor relations between the United States and Cuba, it is time for the healing to begin and to just say, “Play Ball!”