By Jorge L. Ortiz — HAVANA, Cuba – Perhaps buoyed by the goodwill Major League Baseball has engendered in its return to Cuba, Commissioner Rob Manfred is confident a new system to govern the transfer of Cuban players can be in place by the end of the year.
Cuban baseball officials, while grateful for the visit, insistently point to the five-decade-old economic embargo as a major roadblock.
The first day of this unique trip – an unprecedented combination of an MLB team and the sitting U.S. president traveling here at the same time – evoked repeated nods to baseball’s ability to bring cultures together.
MLB came in with some of its most distinguished ambassadors in New York Yankees icon Derek Jeter and Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, along with former Cuban players Luis Tiant and Jose Cardenal. The last three attended a clinic for 9- and 10-year-olds at a field across from Plaza de la Revolucion, with Tampa Bay Rays coaches sharing tips on hitting, fielding and pitching.
Jeter, making his first trip to the island, echoed Torre’s words in saying, “There’s so many differences between the countries, whether it’s location, language, political views, but the one thing that’s a common thread is we speak the same language of baseball.’’
And yet, they sent contrasting messages Monday in addressing a key issue in their relationship.
Paving the way for a new system that would allow Cuban players to offer their services to U.S. teams without abandoning their country is one of MLB’s goals during this visit.
The trip, set in motion after President Obama announced a normalizing of relations between the countries in December 2014, will culminate with Tuesday’s game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.
While MLB has benefited from a substantial influx of Cuban talent in recent years, those players have typically reached the U.S. after risking their lives by escaping on boats, often with the intervention of human traffickers.
Both parties would like to put an end to that practice, but they don’t necessarily agree on how.
“I think we will have a new system for the movement of Cuban players in the relatively near future,’’ Manfred told a group of U.S.-based news reporters, adding that it figures to come within the context of the new collective bargaining agreement, expected to be in place sometime in the fall.
“We do feel pressure to make a change as a result of some of the abuses of which we’ve become painfully aware the last few years.’’
Star players like Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu and Yoenis Cespedes defected by boat in recent years and established residency in third countries, allowing them to become free agents and negotiate contracts worth upwards of $35 million each.
But their harrowing tales brought to light the risky nature of their defections, which in Puig’s case included being held captive in Mexico by smugglers seeking a cut of his bonus money.
The process of reforming the system is complicated by the participation of four different entities – MLB, the players association and the U.S. and Cuban governments – each with their own interests, and an embargo the Republican-led Congress has shown no intention of lifting. Manfred believes major reforms can be made even with the embargo in place.
“We want the embargo to be eliminated so what we’re doing in good faith for baseball and for our players is just, fair and rational,’’ said Cuban baseball Commissioner Heriberto Suarez. “The idea is for our players to be able to go the United States with an equality of conditions and rights, just as the citizens of any other country.’’
That’s still not the case. Until last week, when the Obama administration further eased restrictions, Cuban citizens could not earn a substantial U.S. salary unless they had started the process of emigrating. As it stands right now, they can only receive a salary if they don’t pay special taxes in Cuba.
The regime of President Raul Castro has allowed standouts such as Yulieski Gurriel, Frederich Cepeda and Alfredo Despaigne to play in foreign leagues in recent years, but with the government keeping a significant percentage of their salary.
While high-level officials continue to hash out their differences, fans of the island’s most popular sport are thrilled for the rare chance to watch a major league team in Cuban soil. The only other time that has happened in the last half-century was in 1999, when the Baltimore Orioles prevailed 3-2 in an exhibition against the Cuban national team.
At the urging of his players, and recognizing the significance of the moment, Rays manager Kevin Cash plans to start Class AA outfielder Dayron Varona – the team’s only Cuban-born player and a veteran of seven seasons in the island’s league – as the right fielder and leadoff batter.
His first at-bat figures to make for an emotional moment at Estadio Latinoamericano, even if the expected sellout crowd is composed mostly of Communist party members, as some in Havana have quietly grumbled (public dissent is strongly discouraged).
Among the interested participants Tuesday will be Pavel Hernandez, a pitching prospect for the famed Industriales team in Havana who will serve as a bat-boy. Hernandez, 19, has been keeping close track of the recent baseball and political developments.
“The presidents of both countries still have to meet, but Commissioner Rob Manfred has already said he would be happy if Cuban players didn’t have to continue defecting, but rather go straight to MLB,’’ Hernandez said. “This is something that could impact my future. I could be in that situation one day.’’
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