Baseball Diplomacy

Last year as many as 150 baseball players left Cuba for the United States. Many employed human smugglers or crime rings to secure their arrival.

“One of the things we share is our national pastimes, la pelota. As the quote from Field of Dreams goes, ‘the one constant through all the years ... has been baseball.’ That’s as true in America as it is in Cuba. Whether it’s the middle of a cornfield in Iowa or in the neighborhoods of Havana, our landscapes are dotted with baseball diamonds. Our kids grow up learning to run the bases and count balls and strikes. And many of our greatest ballplayers have taken the field together.” This is what Barack Obama, the President of the United States told before the first exhibition game between a major league team, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Cuban national team. It was the first such event to take place in 17 years.

Despite a shared passion for baseball, the relationship between these neighbors has been tumultuous since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Since the early 1960s, successive U.S. administrations have maintained a policy of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation of Cuba.

Relationships between the countries started slowly warming up after Barack Obama came into office. In 2009, he sought greater engagement with Cuba. Finally, on April 11 2015, Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro shook hands at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, marking the first meeting between a U.S. and Cuban heads of state since 1961. The meeting gave rise to President Obama’s March 2016 visit to Cuba, the first by a sitting president in over eighty-five years. The visit included attending the game between the Rays and the Cuban national team.

Economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation changed the playground for baseball players. Before 1959, Cuban baseball had strong ties to professional baseball in the U.S. Many major leaguers playing winter ball in the Cuban league.

After the revolution, Fidel Castro – himself an avid baseball fan – disbanded the Cuban Winter League. He then replaced the professional league with a new amateur league in 1962. Castro forbade Cuban players to play abroad and extolled them, “playing for the love of people, not money.” Cuban players did not played for the money, that’s for sure. Even today top players get a basic salary of $50 a month.

For decades now the biggest goal a Cuban player can accomplish has been to play on the national team. People of the island love their squad and the players are treated as heroes. That´s why the whole nation was shocked when René Arocha, a right-handed-pitcher on the Cuban national team, defected to the United States while playing an exhibition game in 1991 in Tennessee. He signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as an amateur free agent and played his first game in the MLB in 1993.

Arocha was the first player to defect Cuba after cold war. In the next decade approximately 80 Cubans followed his lead to pursue their own dreams of playing in the bigs.

It is estimated by Cuban authories that last year 150 players left Cuba with hopes of having professional careers in the United States. The latest star players to defect are presumed Yulieski Gourriel, one of the world’s highest rated third-basemen, and his brother Lourdes. They left a Cuban team hotel in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in February after competing in the Caribbean Series.

The elder of the brothers, 31-year old Yulieski, is exempt from international signing guidelines. In other words, he’s a free agent. According the NY Yankees are very interested.

Even if the Yankees, or any other MLB club, would like to sign Yulieski Gourriel right away, it is possible he would not see action in the 2016 MLB season. It can take up to seven months for the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to clear him to sign.

For 22-year-old Lourdes the path to the majors is more winding. Cuban players, who are at least 23 years old and have played in a Cuban professional league for five or more seasons, are exempt from the international signing guidelines established by the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Lourdes has played six seasons in Cuba but will not turn 23 until October. Following his birthday, he will not be subject to the guidelines so it works in his favor to wait out the 2016 season and sign on to join a club at winter ball. In the interim, he can negotiate more freely and work toward completing any paperwork necessary to complete the process once his eligibility kicks in.

One reason that more and more players are willing to take a risk and try their luck in the States is that the status of defectors has changed on the island. “It’s not only the enticement of the money for these young players to leave, but also, they don’t have the same status at home that they used to have,” Baseball author Peter Bjarkamn told CNN. “The guys used to be branded as traitors, and still are to some degree by the government, but for the fans these guys are heroes.”

During Fidel Castro`s regime players faced a lifetime ban from the country if they left the island. Castro’s younger brother and successor, Raul, has been more pragmatic. Cuban baseball players are now allowed to play in other leagues, like Mexico and Japan.

Some defectors have been allowed to return for visits after years of being shut out. One of them, Tampa Bay´s Dayron Verona who defected in 2013, got to see his sister for the first time in three years when he took his home field in March wearing a Tampa Bay Rays jersey on his back.

Even though it will take a while before Cuban players can be signed by Major League Baseball teams without any restrictions, the ties between the MLB and Cuban baseball are growing.

MLB has already taken an initiative and submitted a proposal to allow Cuban players to sign directly with US clubs. Tampa Bay has already opened an office in Havana. Other clubs recently held training workshops at the Industriales ballfield in Cuba.

In the very near future it looks like Cuban players will have a vastly different path to the MLB than their predecessors and heroes like René Arocha and Dayron Verona.

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