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Cuban Field of Dreams: Decision opens up new baseball world
For a half-century, one of the most talent-rich baseball countries in the world has been shrouded in secrecy, the result of Pres. John F. Kennedy’s decision to sever diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961.
In the decades since that bold stand against the threat of military action against the United States, there have been dozens of stories of elite baseball players from the Communist island who risked their lives in rickety boats or rafts, embarking on harrowing journeys across the Caribbean, with the hope of landing on foreign soil and signing a multi-million dollar contract to play in las Grandes Ligas, the Major Leagues.
Welcome to a brave new world of baseball.
“This will definitely f–k up the rags-to-riches story,” one former sports agent who has worked on Cuban athletes’ contracts told the Daily News on Wednesday, after Pres. Obama announced that the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, ending one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.
“It’ll be open trade with Cuba, and I would imagine it could come down to two factors − Cuban players would be subject to a draft if they fall under certain regulations like players from Puerto Rico,” continued the former agent. “Or it could be like in Japan, where a (major league) team has to pay for the rights of the player to bring him to the States. In this case, a team would be paying the (Cuban) government. The Cuban government will probably maintain that it owns the rights of players.”
As news of the White House announcement swept through the Internet and across television screens, there was a palpable shock wave coursing through baseball circles as well. And although a litany of questions remains regarding how Cuban players will become available to major league teams and what conditions may be established to sign them, one thing is certain: Wednesday’s news will have a seismic impact on America’s Pastime.
“It could be unbelievable. There’s this infusion of talent, and we’re talking about a place only 90 miles from Miami,” said one baseball attorney. “There are a lot of things that could go on that could be great for baseball, especially as baseball is trying to become more worldwide. It’s been hard to do that for so long when one of the best baseball areas in the world is part of that in very limited fashion.”
Scott Boras, the California-based super agent who represents stars such as free-agent pitcher Max Scherzer and Yankee Jacoby Ellsbury, told The News that his hope now is that “the young players in Cuba have the opportunities that all other players in the world enjoy.
“Worldwide you want every young player to have the right to advance himself and his family,” said Boras. “And you certainly want for Major League Baseball to have a brand that includes the best baseball players in the world, without exclusion.”
Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers’ dynamic outfielder, is one of the more recent examples of the kind of baseball talent available in Cuba. Puig’s journey to the big leagues − detailed in several reports earlier this year − included a dangerous escape by boat, establishing residency in Mexico, links to a deadly Mexican drug cartel and finally, Puig being showcased for major league clubs and signing his lucrative deal with Los Angeles.
Now, presumably, major league clubs would have a more direct line to scouting and signing Cuban baseball prospects and players, but how easy and how soon that could happen is open for speculation. A multitude of questions will have to be answered, ranging from immigration issues to whether or not the players can return to Cuba freely and exactly how they would be made available to teams.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Conceivably it could lead to an easier flow of players from Cuba to the U.S., and eliminate the buscones who get the kickbacks, all of that stuff,” said one team executive, referring to the street agents who often exploit young prospects, a long-standing problem in the Dominican Republic. “Conceivably, it would improve our scouting. We’ll be able to scout, set up (baseball) academies (in Cuba), and this would result in us having a better knowledge of the Cuban players. Now, we sign them blindly. It would eliminate the red tape in getting players here.”
The latter point is certain to be something MLB team executives will welcome. Putting aside all of the back story of Puig’s signing with the Dodgers, off the field he is still embroiled in a federal civil lawsuit out of the Southern District of Florida. The suit alleges that Puig and his mother “tortuously, intentionally, willfully, wantonly, maliciously, knowingly, recklessly and negligently caused and/or otherwise proximately caused the arbitrary and prolonged detention and torture of” plaintiff Miguel Angel Corbacho Daudinot. Puig had testified against Daudinot in a 2010 criminal trial in Cuba in which he was accused of offering to help smuggle Puig off the island.
Kenia Bravo, one of Daudinot’s attorneys, said that the case is still ongoing, and that she and Daudinot’s legal team hope to depose Puig in 2015. She said Wednesday’s news out of Washington could be something that benefits her case − “It might make it easier to get documents, send people to travel (to Cuba), doing depositions there, any legal action,” Bravo said. But she also speculated about a scenario certain to make Cuban players that are already in the U.S. squirm.
“Puig left Cuba illegally. I don’t think he and other players would be able to travel back there. Would Puig be hauled back for breaking Cuban law? Would the government try to extradite him?” Bravo asked hypothetically. “Some might find the law to be immoral, but some things you don’t just sweep under the rug.”
Major League Baseball and the Players Association both issued brief statements, with the union saying it would “watch this situation closely as it continues to unfold and we remain hopeful that today’s announcement will lead to further positive developments.” MLB also said it would be “closely monitoring the White House’s announcement regarding Cuban-American relations.
“While there are not sufficient details to make a realistic evaluation, we will continue to track this significant issue, and we will keep our Clubs informed if this different direction may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba,” said MLB.
Juan Iglesias, a former agent who represented 1997 World Series MVP and Cuban pitcher Livan Hernandez, said he thought Cuban players would most likely be subject to a draft going forward, and thus, would make less money than players such as Puig and Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo scored with their deals.
Cuban players who have defected in the past became free agents once they established residency in a foreign country such as the Dominican or Mexico. Teams are then free to bid against each other and sign the players, often resulting in mind-boggling, multi-million dollar contracts. If they defect to the U.S., they are subject to the draft.
“It’ll open up the floodgates for Cuban players coming here, but the question is what kind of immigration laws will be put into place,” said Iglesias. “Players would want to live in Cuba and be able to travel back and forth. They could go back as kings, but there are still a lot of questions to be answered.”
The baseball union and MLB have discussed the possibility of an international draft, most recently in 2013, but the two sides would have to agree to implement such a system, and it would have to be collectively bargained. And that is only the beginning of the many gray areas that will arise in baseball’s future with Cuba now that relations between the island and the U.S. are beginning to thaw.
“Will it open the door so current players have the freedom and flexibility to leave Cuba and if they want to come play in U.S., how’s that going to work?” said the baseball attorney. “Are Cuban athletes going to be subject to the draft? Or treated with the distinction between players from Puerto Rico and the rest of Latin America? Clearly, from the teams’ perspective, they’re better off having them controlled by the draft, so they don’t have to pay these guys $ 48, $ 58, $ 68 million dollars without ever seeing them play a game in the big leagues.
“God knows there’s enough talent (in Cuba). From a baseball point of view, this helps grow the game. You no longer have these players with incredible talents playing in secrecy. I think it’s exciting.”
With Bill Madden