The Most Important Aspect of Dealing With Cuba – BASEBALL!

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Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 7.35.14 PM“…Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball..” Jacques Barzun

In what is rather like a Lent commentary, 40 days from today, MLB players will start reporting to Spring Training.  The most important aspect of President Obama and Pope Francis Cuba intervention is all about Baseball – Major League Baseball.  So far, 186 MLB players have come from Cuba.  One suspects, if Fidel Castro has been picked up by MLB, as a young man, the entire history of the last 50 years would have been completely different.  Yes – baseball is that important.  We’re talking players like Hall of Famer and Big Red Machine alumni Tony Perez and Tony Oliva.  In fact, during the past half century, one of the few bonds our two countries have is baseball.   Just hours after Obama made his announcement, MLB was already ‘monitoring the situation’!  Of course they were/are.  Baseball is the key.

Ironically, I just sent an email to a friend, wondering how long the speculation would take about relocating a MLB team to Havana. Well, apparently, that too, began on Wednesday.

“…Baseball officials, team executives, scouts, agents and fans all began to speculate how soon major league teams might be able to sign players in Cuba. Some even wondered whether Major League Baseball might be tempted to relocate a team like the Tampa Bay Rays, who have a feeble fan base, to Havana, where they would most likely be a sensation. Others questioned how rich the Cuban talent pool really was.

At one point Wednesday, M.L.B. became so concerned about the reaction to Obama’s announcement that it sent a directive to its 30 teams pointing out that it remained illegal to scout players in Cuba, or to sign them, because the American embargo of the island remained in effect….”

NY Times
NY Times

Evidently, this is one of the major league problems now facing Cuba.  Baseball is their pride and joy.  It is their national sport and national love affair.  The laws and rules facing Cuban ballplayers who want to jump to MLB are numerous, with financial considerations being part of the problem.  Evidently there are also fascinating little glitches in the way the draft is run, where any Cuban ballplayer over the age of 23 can, if they can get away with it, go directly into free agent status and, if they are good enough, haul in very big bucks, big big bucks.

“...The most recent Cuban defectors to come to the United States have signed for eye-popping sums, especially for players who rarely faced elite competition. In the past year alone, the Arizona Diamondbacks have signed outfielder Yasmany Tomas to a six-year contract worth $68.5 million while the Boston Red Sox signed fellow outfielder Rusney Castillo to a seven-year contract worth $72.5 million. This is because Cuban players fit within a loophole in baseball’s rules that allow any international player over the age of 23 with at least five years of professional experience to become a free agent and able to make as much as the market can bear. These big paydays have incentivized a record number of Cuban players to defect. There were 19 Cubans on big league rosters for Opening Day 2014 and, according to one count, 255 players have defected in recent years. The question is how much will the end of the embargo change this and what impact will this new era of diplomacy have on Cuba’s beloved domestic baseball league, the Serie Nacional…”

 

USA Today
USA Today

The technicalities and implications for this country and for Cuba are staggering – and it is all about baseball.  The technicalities alone are fascinating.  Try this:

“…On the surface, the restoration of ties between the two countries does not change the status quo. Formally, only America’s Congress can lift the embargo, which was codified in the Helms-Burton Act of 1996. However, the text of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations gives the Secretary of the Treasury unfettered authority to approve transactions. None of the steps Mr Obama announced yesterday, such as loosening restrictions on travel and money transfers to the island, will have much impact on MLB. But if the president does want to let Cubans play in America while paying taxes to the Castros, he can authorise it with a stroke of his pen—and following his decision to shield 5m unauthorised immigrants from deportation, he has shown that Republican opposition in Congress will not deter him from using the full extent of his executive authority. Moreover, since his favourite team, the Chicago White Sox, already employs a Cuban who by one measure was the best hitter in the American League last year, he might well have both the interest and inclination to open the floodgates….”

Will it take years of negotiations to come up with a system for players from Cuba to head to the US to play MLB, as is theorized in the Economist, or will baseball find a way around it all?  My money is on MLB.  I figure, by 2016, someone is going to think about some Spring Training games being played in Havana.  When it comes right down to it, don’t think about Cuban music unless the song is an island version of Take me Out to the Ballgame.

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