MLB, MLBPA strike deal with Cuba that allows players to be scouted, signed without defecting

Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig  celebrates after hitting an RBI single in the 13th inning .

Major League Baseball and the players association announced this afternoon that they’ve reached an agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation to allow players from the island to be scouted and signed by the league without having to defect.

Unless scuttled by the Trump administration, the deal would facilitate Cuban players’ entry into American professional baseball while avoiding the dangerous journeys and dealings with human smugglers that have marked many of their departures.

For decades, Cuban players have risked their lives and incarceration if caught by escaping from their homeland in furtive boat trips to destinations like Mexico, Haiti or the Dominican Republic, where they could establish residency and pursue multimillion-dollar contracts.

All-Stars such as Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig and White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu made it out that way, though details of their escapes have been sketchy because of fear their relatives may face retribution back home.

In many instances, players like Cespedes and Indians outfielder Leonys Martin have been the subject of monetary demands and even extortion from some of the people who helped them defect. Puig endured a harrowing ordeal leaving Cuba via Mexico in 2012 with assistance from human smugglers who later threatened to kill him, according to a 2014 lawsuit.

"To know future Cuban players will not have to go through what we went through makes me so happy," Puig said. "I want to thank everyone who was involved in making this happen.''

At the beginning of last season, there were 17 natives of Cuba on major league rosters and disabled lists, the fourth-largest contingent of foreign-born players in the game. Abreu and Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman were picked for the All-Star Game.

That representation figures to increase with a less-hazardous journey to the majors from one of baseball’s perennial hot spots for talent.

“For years, Major League Baseball has been seeking to end the trafficking of baseball players from Cuba by criminal organizations by creating a safe and legal alternative for those players to sign with Major League Clubs," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. "We believe that this agreement accomplishes that objective and will allow the next generation of Cuban players to pursue their dream without enduring many of the hardships experienced by current and former Cuban players who have played Major League Baseball.”

During a trip to Cuba for an exhibition game by the Tampa Bay Rays in March 2016 – which coincided with President Barack Obama’s visit – Manfred expressed optimism about striking a deal for Cuban players to join major league clubs, perhaps by the end of that year.

That goal was jeopardized with the November election to the presidency of Donald Trump, a Republican with more of a hard-line approach toward the island’s Communist government than his predecessor.

While Trump has yet to comment publicly about the agreement, a senior administration official told USA TODAY via e-mail:

“Major League Baseball’s proposed program of cooperation with the Cuban Baseball Federation would institutionalize a system by which a Cuban body garnishes the wages of hard-working athletes who simply seek to live and compete in a free society. The Administration is actively assessing the Obama-era policies that Major League Baseball appears to have leveraged to enter into this arrangement with the Cuban Baseball Federation.” 

Some officials in the administration believe MLB is acting under a ruling from the State Department (under Obama) that the Cuban federation is not a part of the regime, and thus U.S. companies are allowed to enter into contracts with that entity. However, current State Department could rescind or change that determination and make the CBF off limits to U.S. businesses.

The agreement has already drawn opposition from members of the Cuban-American community, which has grappled in recent years with former President Obama’s historic rapprochement with the communist island and Trump’s moves to scale back that opening.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, one of the strongest critics of Obama’s diplomatic and economic opening with Cuba, equated the MLB deal with “human trafficking” in a tweet Wednesday morning. He blasted the fees that U.S. franchises would have to pay the CBF, which is controlled by the Cuban government and would enrich the communist regime. He called such payments “shameful” and called on Trump to halt the deal.

“The concept that Cuban baseball players are free human beings and can make choices irrespective of the regime, of that dictatorship that controls their lives, is an absolute fallacy,” Diaz-Balart said Wednesday. “Baseball players are a commodity that the regime deals in. Not understanding that is not understanding the reality the Cuban people live with each and every day.”

But Ric Herrero says that analysis misses the fact that the ones who would benefit the most from the MLB proposal are the Cuban people. Herrero, policy director of the Cuba Study Group, a collection of Cuban-American business leaders that advocates for a more open relationship with Cuba, described the fees paid to the CBF as a “collateral benefit” that is far outweighed by the benefits for Cuban players, their families and their communities.

By implementing a formalized agreement, Herrero said the dangerous defections Cuban baseball players have endured will be a thing of the past. He said the quality of life of their families in Cuba will be dramatically improved. And on an island where the black market rules and Cubans must hide assets sent to them by relatives abroad, he said a legal system of creating wealth inside of Cuba would serve as a shining example of what’s possible and push Cubans to demand expanded access to similar avenues of capital.

“In order for a society to put itself on a path toward sustainable growth, it needs to allow for some degree of wealth creation. (The MLB deal) is now going to drive that conversation more than anything else,” Herrero said. “It brings the issue front and center in a crystal-clear way, because everyone understands that a major league baseball player gets paid enormous sums of money.”

MLB said the agreement stipulates the CBF must release all players under contract who are at least 25 and have six or more years of playing service. The federation also has the option of releasing younger players to sign with MLB clubs.

The player may negotiate and sign with any team without leaving Cuba. The signing team will pay a posting fee to the Cuban federation, not unlike fees paid for players moving from Japan to MLB. 

The player will receive a work visa that will enable him to travel to and from Cuba and the USA.

"It is good to know that players will not have take a risk or be in danger to try and get to the United States to play baseball," White Sox infielder Yoan Moncada said in a statement released by MLB. "I am really happy and wish future players the best. I’ll be waiting for you in the big leagues."

Contributing: David M. Jackson

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