By: Joshua Levey
In America, the game of baseball plays a major role for many. Constantly dubbed “America’s Pastime,” baseball is a staple among the majority of the U.S population. It creates a sense of identity, and it instills values of teamwork and comradery that cannot be replicated in other sports. Even further past this identity that is created through playing together as a team on the diamond, individuals in this country join together, becoming fanatics for their hometown teams, to watch these incredibly talented masters in their craft. In turn, these professionals turn this “game,” into a unique and seamless product, which ultimately is molded into an art form. For Americans, baseball may just be a game. But, just ninety miles south from the tip of the state of Florida, baseball is not just a game; it is life.
This past December, Major League Baseball (“MLB”) and the Major League Baseball Players Association (“MLBPA”) jointly announced an agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation (“FCB”), which now equips Cuban baseball players with a legal and safe path to sign with an MLB club. So, what exactly did this deal mean for these players who have aspirations to make it to the show? It provides an opportunity to make their country proud and it gives these once star-struck young kids the chance to provide for their impoverished families. Most importantly, it gives these individuals an out, without having to fear for their lives. In the 2018 MLB season, there were twenty-six active Cuban-born baseball players on big league rosters. However, in the history of the storied league, there have been approximately 300 Cuban-born players to step foot on the diamond for an MLB team, and unknown to many, these numbers could have, and should have, been much larger.
Under the Fidel Castro regime in Cuba, Cubans were forced to “escape” from oppression. With Florida’s geographical proximity, Cuban baseball stars have desperately sailed the treacherous waters onto its shores. Although no longer in existence, under America’s “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, those who were able to safely reach United States’ soil without being caught were immediately eligible for permanent residency. The path to achieve this status has never been easy, as many players have survived near death experiences while nearly falling victim to the Atlantic Ocean’s grasp. These players were also forced to sign with the team that selects them in the first year player draft, which financially handicapped most of them who could have seen far more lucrative contracts for the exchange of talent that each one brings to the table. Not only have players opted to take matters into their own hands in this fashion, but there was a major human trafficking issue regarding the smuggling of these athletes from Cuba into the United States. For example, in 2012, Yasiel Puig, who was one of the most highly touted Cuban prospects to play in the MLB, sailed to an island just off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, and into the clutches of five “lancheros,” who were in charge of smuggling Puig out of Cuba and getting him into the United States to play in the MLB. The price for this endeavor did not come cheap, as these smugglers viewed Puig as a cash cow, ultimately collecting $1.3-1.4 million from the star. Staring death in the face, Puig was forced to risk his life, and was forced to escape a motel room in the middle of the night, where he finally reached safely in the United States, albeit while continuing to receive death threats from the smugglers who had him in their possession.
The stories certainly tell it all. The road to get to the United States and play this “seamless game” has never been easy for those with roots in Cuba. However, the MLB and the FCB have taken a monstrous leap towards fostering a safe path into the United States. This agreement was the product of many years of intense negotiation, with the sole aim of ending the black market and human trafficking that has exposed many Cuban players to physical danger and immense legal and financial despair. The terms of the agreement are very similar to the “posting system” that the MLB has with the Nippon Professional Baseball league (“NPB”), in addition to South Korea’s KBO and Taiwan’s CPBL. Under the agreement, all Cuban players who are at least 25 years old and have at least six years of professional experience in any Cuban league, are free to negotiate and sign an agreement with any MLB team. Additionally, players who might fall short of these requirements may request release from their current FCB team and can sign with any MLB club. These players must qualify for a work visa in the United States and may freely return to Cuba in the off-season and are afforded the opportunity to play for the Cuban National team with the consent of their MLB team.
The system may not be perfect, but it is certainly a start. For these Cuban phenoms, baseball is more than just a game; it is their livelihood. Every single one of these talents deserves a fair shot at the American Dream and showcase their talent in front of millions of spectators who have this undying passion for the game of baseball. For once, these individuals can feel larger than life and put the years of endured hardship far into the past. This agreement signifies not only hope, but a sense of relief for those who wish to step foot on the American diamond. The day the agreement was signed, Puig expressed his deep sentiment for the groundbreaking news: “To know future Cuban players will not have to go through what we went through makes me so happy. I want to thank everyone who was involved in making this happen and thank them personally for allowing an opportunity for Cuban baseball players to have the ability and show how talented they are.” Puig’s message is clear: No Cuban born baseball player should ever have to experience the horrors that their predecessors were forced to endure. The MLB and the FCB took the first step towards the total eradication of the monstrosity that plagued Cuban stars for years.