Last December, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced their plans to restore full diplomatic ties between their respective countries. While such an announcement for many opens up a new vacation spot, baseball enthusiasts view it as a rich untapped source of talented players.
The United States severed its ties with Cuba in 1961. Prior to that time, a much different relationship existed. Both countries exchanged university students, imported goods, and traveled to-and-from was welcomed. The two countries not only shared cultures but they also shared their love of baseball. Over a half century has passed since the Havana Sugar Kings, a Cincinnati Reds affiliate, played in the Class AAA International League. It’s impossible to ignore Cuba’s impact on the game. In July, five players hailing from Cuba took part in the All-Star Game in Minnesota, and we’ve seen the salaries given to elite Cuban players skyrocket.
However, in order for a Cuban player to play in the MLB today, they have to give up everything. The players are required to “defect” from Cuba. To defect means: one must give up allegiance to one state in exchange for allegiance to another; in a way which is considered illegitimate by the first state.
Defections can be treacherous and require high risks. Some Cuban players are known to abandon their national team during international tournaments. However, most players escape Cuba by taking a boat and trying to make it to the nearest port in Mexico or Haiti. Once there, they are placed in a safe house or a hotel where a “front man” makes calls on the player’s behalf to seek the highest bidder. The players cannot reside in the US, nor ever return to Cuba.
They must reside in another country in order to register with the commissioners’ office to become free agents and avoid being subject to MLB’s amateur draft. Under MLB’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA), those who reside outside the United States are included in each MLB team’s international signing pool. Most players take this leap of faith with no guarantee of actually landing on a team. However, there is an exemption to the rule. If the player is 23 or older and has played for 5 years or more with a professional team, they are exempt from the international signing guidelines established by the CBA. This effectively makes them free agents and allows for direct access to the US.
Nonetheless, baseball enthusiasts and executives like Lou Schwechheimer are working to take advantage of the recent unity between the two countries. Mr. Schwechheimer is a veteran minor league executive. He has secured the exclusive rights from Minor League Baseball to return professional baseball to Havana. He has assembled a group called the Caribbean Baseball Initiative (CBI). CBI’s vision is not only to create a Cuban minor league team and an easier avenue for players to join the MLB, but also to promote the advancement of Cuban/US relations. A State Department executive described baseball as, “an excellent avenue for sports diplomacy and creating good will between our peoples.”
Recently, the Caribbean Baseball Initiative has teamed up with the brand ’47 to promote this much-awaited union. ’47 states that “by providing headwear and apparel for Baseball Havana, we hope to get consumers excited to represent the reemergence of pro baseball in Cuba.” The progression of the movement may be slow but CBI executives hope to have a minor league team in Havana as early as 2017.
As a lover of baseball, this is exciting news! The amount of talent going unnoticed on the small island is heartbreaking. Having the opportunity to see more Cuban greats like Yoenis Cepedes (2013 Home Run Derby winner) and Livan Hernandez (97 World Series MVP) would be thrilling not only for me, but for all baseball fans. The game deserves what Cuba has to offer.
Update: Tampa Bay Rays are to play a game in Havana for the first time since 1999 during the President’s visit on March 22nd. Another step forward in the right direction.