But the road to playing for an American baseball club is paved with significant regulatory hurdles, as well as much personal sacrifice, for those young Cuban players determined enough to make it to the U.S.
Recently, Major League Baseball (MLB) reached a new agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB), which it says provides this U.S.-embargoed Caribbean country’s players “with a safe and legal path” to sign with U.S. teams.
“The objective of the agreement, which is the product of years of negotiations with the FCB, is to end the dangerous trafficking of Cuban players who desire to play professional baseball in the United States, a practice that has been documented in legal proceedings and media reports and which has caused significant hardship to Cuban players and their families,” MLB said.
Since the imposition of the U.S. government’s Cuban embargo in 1963, Cuban baseball players have been subject to the rigorous Cuban Assets Control Regulations. These regulations not only governed U.S. business dealings with Cuba involving goods, but also in the movement of people, known as “deemed exports.” Thus, MLB teams seeking to bring on board a Cuban player needed to obtain a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, an often arduous and time-consuming process.
To help ease the licensing process, Cuban-born players were encouraged to take up residency in non-U.S. embargoed countries — often with assistance from human smugglers — at great personal expense and risks to their well-being before they could be approached by a Major League team.
Taking this route, however, is not a guarantee of success for either the MLB team or Cuban player. Even those Cuban players lucky enough to make it to the Big Leagues often continue to be haunted by those methods used to gain access to the U.S. “To this date, I am still harassed” by human smugglers, said Cuban-born Chicago White Sox first baseman José Abreu in a recent statement.
Cuban players started to defect to the U.S. in 1991, with Rene Arocha leading the way. But those who were willing to make this journey remained a trickle.
In addition to the U.S. government’s Cuba embargo, MLB maintained its own strict rules on how to handle Cuban players who defect to the U.S.
In 1999, the L.A. Dodgers became the first team to violate the MLB’s rules. The team allegedly recruited two players in Cuba and helped them defect to the Dominican Republic, from where they could springboard to the club’s minor league teams. The Dodgers not only lost their contracts with the two players but were ordered to pay the MLB a $200,000 fine.
The MLB has remained eager to find ways to more freely tap Cuba of its baseball talent. In 2002, the Clinton administration approved for the first time since the embargo an exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and Cuba’s top team in Havana. Fidel Castro famously attended the game.
Despite Major League baseball’s friendly diplomatic gravitational pull, the game wasn’t enough to liberalize the U.S. and MLB controls over the recruitment of Cuban players. However, Jose Contreras, Cuba’s star player who played in the game against the Orioles, managed to successfully defect to the U.S. that same year to play for the New York Yankees.
Under the new MLB agreement reached in late December, the FCB must release all players under contract to the FCB who are at least 25 years old and have six or more years of MLB-approved playing experience to sign with MLB clubs. The FCB may also release younger players to sign with Major League clubs. Once a player is released by the FCB, he is free to negotiate and sign with any Major League club without leaving Cuba, subject to the same collectively bargained rules applicable to all international players.
When it’s time for the player to report to the United States or Canada for baseball activities, he is required to apply for the standard work visa, which also will allow him to travel with his family and to return to Cuba during the off-season.
The FCB becomes the fourth foreign professional baseball league to enter into an agreement of this nature with MLB, joining Nippon Professional Baseball, the Korea Baseball Organization and the Chinese Professional Baseball League.
To comply with OFAC regulations, Cuban players must take the additional step of providing the MLB club with a sworn statement that they are neither a prohibited member of the Cuban government nor the country’s communist party.
“The next generation of Cuban baseball players will be able to sign a MLB contract while in Cuba; they will be able to keep their earnings as any other player in the world; they will be able to return to Cuba; they will be able to share with their families; and they will be able to play the sport they love against the best players in the world without fear and trepidation,” Abreu said of the new MLB agreement with the FCB.
However, the new MLB agreement with the FCB is still not a home run, since the Trump administration, which has expressed interest in cracking down on Cuba, could call it a foul play and send the deal back to the dugout.