By Joel Sherman — HAVANA – A cockroach had crawled on the table, moving from in front of me toward the commissioner of baseball.
After a formal news conference Monday morning at the Melia Cohiba hotel with Cuban baseball officials and union head Tony Clark, Manfred was winding down a 15-minute private session with a half-dozen reporters when the bug appeared on the white tablecloth.
Manfred assessed the situation, removed his shoe and dispatched with the roach. He could have ignored the issue, but he is not one to ignore what is in front of him, good or bad.
Manfred is proving to be a head-on commissioner, whether dealing with takeout slides at second base or domestic abuse. And he is in Cuba because “it puts a focus on the need to get a system that allows players to go back and forth freely.” To emphasize how important the matter is to him, Manfred ordered every important official under his command to join him in Cuba, except chief financial officer Bob Starkey, who was left to run the New York office.
Manfred sees the economic benefits should this market open fully, not just for more players coming to the majors, but to deepen the fan base, potentially have more exhibition or regular-season games in Cuba and – the commissioner said – “a team [based in Cuba] in the long haul.”
In the here and now, though, Manfred recognizes the desperate, dangerous methods being employed by those who want to try to play in the States must stop. As if the perils of escape by sea needed accentuating, 200 feet from where the commissioner was speaking, waves from a particularly choppy Atlantic Ocean were kicking 10, 15, 20 feet over a high barrier wall and crashing down on the street and cars on the other side.
Manfred mentioned several times that his office had “become painfully aware the last few years” of the human smuggling being done, with revelations of constant physical threat and extortion. It moved the commissioner to say, “We do feel the pressure to make [a deal].”
However, there are complexities. This negotiation is not just between MLB and the Players Association – familiar turf for the bargainers on both sides — but more vitally include the governments of two countries only now renewing diplomatic relations after more than a half century.
Yet, Manfred told the small group of reporters: “I think a deal on Cuban player movement will come in the context of the next CBA.”
Formal negotiations between MLB and the Players Association are scheduled to begin in April to work on a new collective bargaining agreement before the current one expires on Dec. 1.
Even with better relations developing between countries, the US trade embargo on Cuba remains. That means an MLB team cannot directly pay a Cuban club for a player, and Manfred said “they are looking for a system in which somebody loosely identified as a Cuban gets paid for the development of their players.”
This is not unique. MLB teams do something similar in the form of posting fees for Korean and Japanese players still bound to teams in their home countries. Plus, there are transfer fees in other sports, such as international soccer.
Manfred expressed the possibility of making an agreement for the free and safe movement of Cuban players back and forth from America without the embargo being lifted. He says his top lieutenant, Dan Halem, has been in regular, productive contact with high-level members of the Obama administration on the matter.
The end game, Manfred said, is to have the best players come safely to MLB without damaging the product in Cuba. And as a man who wants to act now, Manfred is optimistic.
“We will have a new system on Cuban player movement in place in the relatively near future,” he said.
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