BY JAKE MARCUS
On December 17, 2014, the United States and Cuba sought to normalize relations upon the release of U.S. contractor, Alan Gross, from Cuba after being imprisoned since 2009. This means that the U.S. will set up an embassy in Havana, carry on diplomatic relations, and negotiate over trade.
Even though the countries are seeking to iron out decades of uncivil relations, an area where Cuba may not be as liberal in allowing unobstructed travel is when it’s top tier baseball players make an attempt to enter American Major League Baseball (MLB). That’s right; America’s pastime may be a category that the countries have difficulty reaching a compromise on.
Why is this a point of contention for Cuba? Well, the issue of targeting baseball players seeking a career in the MLB derives from Cuban’s culture and passion for the sport of baseball. This began when former Cuban President, Fidel Castro, who is a huge baseball fan and hates to see his talent in Cuba leave for the MLB, explained that Cuban defections into the U.S. to play baseball sour United States-Cuban relations. When the first Cuban player, Rene Arocha, defected to the United States for the MLB in 1991, the Cuban government accused him of “high treason against the revolution”. It is not uncommon for the players to be disallowed from returning to Cuba and they face the risk of never seeing their family and friends again.
Thus, the Cuban government, and even Major League Baseball, has made it a circuitous journey for the baseball players to make it from point A in Cuba to point B in the United States to make a lucrative salary on a Major League roster. Cuban defectors seeking to play in the MLB must first establish residency in a third country and then entered the United States on an “O” or “P” visa. By doing so, the players avoid the draft provisions of Rule 4 and are free to negotiate salaries with all MLB teams instead of having to wait a year to establish residency and enter the Draft. In other words, the defector abides by the Cuban Adjustment Act (“wet foot, dry foot” American policy), which generally allows Cuban nationals to stay in America if they are caught on American soil (dry feet) but face possible repatriation to Cuba if they are caught at sea (wet feet).
In many cases, players prefer to seek asylum in the United States in compliance with the “wet-foot, dry-foot” rule after defecting to another country first, like Mexico or Haiti, which are safer to get to from Cuba. Additionally, under the MLB’s current policy, those who defect straight to the United States must enter the MLB first year player draft instead of entering the bidding process as a hot commodity free agent and the difference in salary is substantial between these two options. The highest concern is for players who end up falling short of their dreams of making a Major League roster and end up stuck in the United States with no opportunity to return to Cuba due to their “betrayal” of the Cuban government.
The risks are increasingly evident due to the pending litigation involving some ball players. Superstar outfielder, Yasiel Puig, is involved in the case of Miguel Angel Corbacho Daudinot v. Yasiel Puig Valdes and Maritza Valdes Gonzalez, which is a $12 million suit under the Torture Victims Protections Act of 1991 for prolonged arbitrary detention and torture. Puig was smuggled out of Cuba in a plan orchestrated by Raul Pacheco, where they agreed that Pacheco would receive 20% of Puig’s contract in exchange for $250,000 for the escape. Additionally, on December 16, 2014, Gilberto Suarez was found guilty of arranging and financing Puig’s defection where he hoped to capitalize on the large salary negotiated with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the MLB.
Despite the risks involved with defecting, the potential reward gives a huge incentive for Cuban baseball players to attempt to get into the MLB. The Boston Red Sox signed Cuban free agent, Rusney Castillo, to a seven year $72.5 Million contract in 2014, making Castillo the highest paid Cuban free agent. The disparity in potential salary, coupled with the poor conditions in Cuba, create a large incentive to escape, even at the expense of being disloyal to their home country and putting themselves through dangerous and traumatic experiences.
As the two countries seek to normalize relations, the baseball issue could exacerbate the link between them, but could alternatively be used as a platform to make the link even stronger. In order to ensure both sides are satisfied with a deal involving baseball players defecting from Cuba to the United States, the Cuban government needs to be incentivized in allowing their top talent to play in the MLB. The MLB should also not be compromised of the opportunity to recruit these players who want to play in the League. Also, all parties need to stop turning a blind eye to the dangerous avenues that players are resorting to in order to strive for an opportunity to play in the MLB.
With normalized relations, traveling between the two countries will be less stringent. Newly appointed MLB commissioner, Rob Manfred, has a golden opportunity to amend the rules involving Cuban baseball players and implement some new events along the way. Manfred could start by teaming up with the respective governments and offering a tax incentive on the players so part of the salary goes directly to the Cuban government on a tiered system depending how talented the baseball player is. A deal should also be worked out where players who do not end up making the MLB can return to Cuba with no repercussions.
Whether money will resolve an issue that Cuba is passionate about is hard to say. However, another opportunity to increase exposure for the Cuban baseball players in the United States will come in July 2016 when the MLB All-Star Game will be merely 200 miles from Cuba as the game will be hosted by the Miami Marlins. A Cuban All-Star team vs. United All-Star team could increase exposure and the proceeds from concessions can be apportioned to the Cuban government. In the short term, it is unlikely that the normalized relations will have much of an impact on the current procedures Cuban players go through to enter the MLB, but, in the long term, hopefully the problematic system is something that can be smoothed out.