As he watched Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez strike out New York Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes in a spring training game, it reminded Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred of the challenge that is facing him.
Fernandez and Cespedes went through great hardship to defect from Cuba, risking their lives to flee the country in order to play baseball in the United States. Still other Cuban players desperate to exit allowed themselves to become black-market pawns in which human traffickers extracted a heavy price for their goals and freedom.
“Those are exactly the burdens we’re interested in alleviating,” Manfred said Thursday. “We’re all aware of the stories that have been written and told, and we think the only way to deal with the potential problem associated with that is a free and open system.”
In that quest, Manfred is traveling to Cuba, where the Tampa Bay Rays will face a Cuban national team in an exhibition game on Tuesday. President Barack Obama is also making the trip, making him the first sitting U.S. President to visit the country in 88 years.
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All of it is coming about as the result of the Obama administration’s decision in 2014 to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. And Major League Baseball is looking at it as a chance to smooth the path for Cuban players wanting to play in the United States.
Manfred is hoping to work out a historic agreement that would enable Cubans to play professionally in the United States without endangering their lives and those of their families.
But he faces almost as many hurdles in reaching such an accord as Cuban players have encountered in their harrowing journeys to the United States. The league has submitted a proposal to the U.S. Treasury Department designed to open a straight path for Cuban players.
That’s only the first step. Any agreement also would require the approval of other interests, such as the Baseball Federation of Cuba, the Cuban government and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association.
“Any time you add parties to a process, it gets more complicated,” Manfred said.
While foreign players from countries such as the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico have found their way to the majors through a process that is not nearly as restrictive, players from baseball-infatuated Cuba have had to resort to elaborate escape plans — often at their own peril — to reach the big leagues.
Fernandez and Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria got out on boats.
Others defected while playing abroad for Cuban national teams.
Some made their way out with the assistance of profit-gouging smugglers, who commanded steep prices — upward of 30 to 40 percent of future salaries — for their freedom. (The typical agent fee for a U.S.-based player is 5 percent).
Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin was among a number of Cubans who were smuggled into Mexico and held hostage for ransom as part of a human-trafficking ring. The mastermind of the ring, Elizer Lazo, pleaded guilty last year to extortion.
“There really are tremendous risks and dangers involved,” said Paul Minoff, Martin’s Fort Lauderdale-based attorney. “It’s sad, in order for these individuals to be able to take advantage of opportunity [in the U.S.], that they have to escape in the middle of the night on a boat and hopefully not drown, and hopefully not get killed because some gang is looking to kidnap them or because rival smugglers are fighting out who owns this individual.”
Major League Baseball is trying to bring an end to the subterfuge.
Because the Cuban-embargo remains in place, the league has crafted a plan that would circumvent money flowing directly to the Cuban government. Instead, the proposal calls for the establishment of an entity in Cuba — something akin to a non-profit group — that would receive a percentage of a Cuban ballplayers’ major league salary and funnel it into youth baseball programs.
Joe Kehoskie, a former player agent and U.S. based expert on baseball in Cuba, is doubtful that such a plan would work.
“I’m guessing that we’re not going to be seeing any direct pipeline between Cuba and major league baseball anytime soon,” Kehoskie said. “First of all, the changes announced by President Obama don’t allow Cuba to receive anything. So it would be a massive change on the part of the Cuban government to just say, OK, we’re done, we quit, we surrender. We’re going to allow players to leave just like any player from around the world.”
Kehoskie added that even if an agreement is worked out, so few major league-caliber players remain in Cuba — most of the top players have managed to make it out already by whatever means — that it wouldn’t create a sudden influx of talent to big-league rosters.
Despite the restrictions, the number of Cuban players in the majors has increased steadily. According to baseballreference.com, only three Cubans played in the majors in 1985. By 2005, that number had increased to 10. Last season, 28 Cuban-born athletes played in the majors.
Those figures don’t include the number of Cuban players receiving baseball paychecks in the U.S. minors, or in foreign countries such as Japan and Korea.
“After hundreds of defections, the cupboard is almost bare in Cuba, to the point that there aren’t more than five major league-ready players left on the island,” Kehoskie said.
Still, MLB intends to seek a resolution.
“I think something will get done,” Manfred said. “I think the fundamentals are that the current system is not really good for anybody, and I’m hopeful we’ll find a way to make an agreement.”
Venezuelan leader flies to Cuba ahead of Obama visit
(AP) —Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro flew to Cuba on Friday for a day of high-level meetings and ceremonies that appeared designed to send a message of socialist solidarity two days before Barack Obama becomes the first U.S. president to visit the island in nearly 90 years.
Maduro was accompanied by his ministers of foreign affairs, agriculture, health, petroleum and mining, and communications. Communications Minister Luis Jose Marcano told Venezuelan state television that the two governments would agree on new cooperation in pharmaceutical production, urban agriculture, industrial development, and tourism.
Later in the day, Maduro was set to receive the Order of Jose Marti, one of Cuba’s highest honors.
Venezuela has been sending hundreds of millions of dollars in oil to Cuba each year in exchange for Cuba sending teams of doctors and other state workers to bolster Venezuelan government efforts. Some of that aid has been cut back as Venezuela struggles with a deep economic crisis. Venezuela’s relations with the U.S. remain tense even as Cuba works with the Obama administration to normalize ties.