Cuba Relations & Baseball: Just Let 'Em Play

baseball with Cuban & American flags

Images courtesy of Fotalia/Microsoft

Cuba Relations & Baseball: Just Let 'Em Play
| published January 28, 2015 |

By Kevin Robbie
Thursday Review contributor

A couple of summers ago, I travelled with my family to Key West. We accumulated a lot of photos, including an obligatory set taken at the iconic marker which indicates the distance to America’s neighbor to the south: “90 miles to Cuba” the concrete obelisk reads.

Ninety miles isn’t far, a drive of about an hour-and-a-half on land. In terms of accessibility, however, that marker might as well read “9,000 miles to Cuba.” During the Cold War, and for a period of 50 years, Cuba was considered in the enemy camp. The 1962 missile crisis put Cuba in the headlines until diplomacy and a naval quarantine ended the tension. The embargo placed on Cuba by the United States ended the flow of trade between the two countries. But the embargo affected more than commercial trade. Sports were also impacted. For example, longstanding baseball ties were broken, shutting the door to Cuban talent.

Now, however, the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba could have a comprehensive effect and establish a new dynamic between the two countries. The restoration of contact would impact economic activity, political policy and immigration as well. The loosening or removal of restrictions on travel and communication is likely to affect cultural and recreational activities, too, including baseball. This issue arose in December when President Obama gave a speech that touched on U.S.-Cuba relations. The White House issued a fact statement regarding U.S.-Cuban relations on December 17, 2014, which presages fundamental changes in American policy.

One such activity is sports, specifically, baseball, which has always been very prominent in Cuba. Famous athletes are often lionized in the Cuban press and idolized by the fans, just as they are in many countries. The sport isn’t popular just in Cuba—Latin America has long been a hotbed for baseball talent, and the sport is enormously popular in the region. Major league teams assign scouts to these areas, agents who scour the numerous leagues and teams so as to maintain a healthy influx of talent to the big leagues.

Cuba’s historical passion for baseball runs deep. The Cuban Baseball League was founded in 1878 and was one of the oldest continually operating professional baseball leagues outside the United States. The Cuban League acted as an unofficial minor league for the major leagues in the U.S. Many famous American players, such as Babe Ruth, participated in barnstorming tours on the island, spreading the popularity of baseball in Cuba. Numerous Cuban players such as Camilo Pascual, Orestes “Minnie” Minoso and Luis Tiant were among the Cubans who found success in the major leagues upon leaving the island.

In 1947, the relationship between the Cuban League and the major leagues was organized in a formal arrangement. Major league players would play in Cuba during the winter alongside and against Cuban players. In addition, major league scouts and coaches were able to monitor player development more effectively and ties between the American and Cuban baseball communities were strengthened. In spite of American interference in Cuba and the country’s political instability, baseball acted as a common denominator and cultural connector between the two countries.

Nevertheless, the rise to power of Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution in 1959 brought about an end to professional baseball in that country. The Cuban League was considered a symbol of American exploitation and capitalism. The Cuban National Series (“Serie Nacional”), the primary amateur baseball competition in Cuba, was formed in 1961 to replace the Cuban Baseball League. The Serie Nacional plays a 90-game schedule and comprises sixteen teams, one for each province. Havana is represented by two teams. Upon the conclusion of the season, an eight-team tournament determines the league champion. The players are considered amateurs and they play for the province in which they reside. In May and June, five regional teams play in a twenty-eight game “Super Series.” Players for those five teams are selected from the best players among those who appeared in the Serie Nacional. The top players in the Super Series are then chosen for the roster of the Cuban National Team, which consistently ranks as a powerhouse in international competition.

If the diplomatic and economic restrictions are lifted, the implications for Cuban and major league baseball are significant. Currently, Cuban players have to defect from the island and establish residency in another country, typically Haiti or the Dominican Republic. That process alone can take several weeks. The player then has to be declared a free agent by Major League Baseball, which can also take many weeks. After these obstacles are cleared, the player has to be unblocked by the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC). The U.S. government wants to make sure the player isn’t funneling money back to Cuba. That latter step can require many months and is handled on a case-by-case basis.

Major League Baseball is working with the federal government regarding the implication of the new policy toward Cuba. MLB certainly wants to be diligent in this process. A new commissioner has taken office and one of his priorities is clarifying implementation of the new policy as it pertains to MLB and Cuba. Most laws contain ambiguous language—deliberately or otherwise—and the commissioner’s office will want to protect the sport from any potential litigation or other legal problems which could arise from the new legal framework. Of course, the position of the Cuban government—which, according to Raul Castro, is to remain Marxist-Leninist politically—will also be a major factor in this process.

But change, in a sense, has already occurred. Recently, Cuba has lent players to Japanese and Mexican teams. Another player, 19 year old Yoan Moncada, has been in Florida since December after having first established residency in Guatemala and hiring an American agent. Workouts showcasing Moncada’s talent have been held for MLB teams in Guatemala as the teams jockey for position to negotiate with Moncada’s agent as soon as he is unblocked by OFAC. He is the first Cuban player to leave the island legally and is the Cuban player most coveted by major league teams. Because of the level of Moncada's talent, his OFAC process is taking longer than with other players. When he is finally unblocked, Mr. Moncada will become a wealthy young man.

In the meantime, talks between the U.S. and Cuba show every indication of being slow and tedious and the ultimate outcome is, of course, unknown. Politicians, bureaucrats and ideology will likely complicate the negotiations for young men who just want to play the game they love. In the meantime, players will take the field and fans will fill the seats. Just let ‘em play.

Related Thursday Review articles

In the Best Interests of Baseball; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; August 12, 2014.

Ernie Banks: Rest in Peace; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; January 27, 2015.

The Bird Takes Flight: 1976, The Season of Mark Fidrych; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; May 6, 2014.