The United States is in the process of normalizing relations with Cuba, which may have the effect of drawing more Cuban baseball players to the United States.
On Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Rays are facing the Cuban national team in Havana. The exhibition is the first to feature a U.S. major league team and the Cuban national team since the Baltimore Orioles played on the island in 1999. The trip coincides with President Obama's visit to the island, the first by a sitting U.S. president in 88 years. Obama is attending Tuesday's game.
Tuesday's historic game is a sign of the growing relationship between the two countries, including on the baseball diamond. As relations between the two governments thaw, the Cuban presence in American baseball will continue to grow.
How Cuban players have reached MLB
Major League Baseball has seen a number of stars come from Cuba over the years. Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets are a few Cubans who been successful in MLB in recent years.
In the past, being able to play at the top level of baseball has come at a cost for these players. Former Cuban president Fidel Castro would hand down lifetime bans from Cuba to those players that would flee for the United States.
Players used to need to defect from Cuba and then establish residency in another country before being eligible to sign directly with a major league club. It has been possible for Cuban players to join a Major League Baseball team directly, but to do so they would have to enter the amateur draft, where they receive less money. Jose Fernandez defected and settled in Florida in 2008, and in 2011 he was drafted by the Marlins. He signed a $2 million signing bonus. In 2014, the Red Sox signed Cuban star Rusney Castillo to a $72.5 million deal after he established permanent residence in the Dominican Republic.
The tales of Cuban players taking great risks to arrive in the United States have been well documented. Puig, for instance, attempted to escape from Cuba on several occasions and finally made it to Mexico with the help of smugglers who worked for a Mexican drug cartel, as ESPN The Magazine documented in 2014.
A Cuban official told CNN that about 150 players left Cuba in 2012. Some took the extreme measures that involve smuggler and criminal gangs to escape.
What the new U.S. policy means
President Obama has repeatedly stated that he'd like the United States to end its longstanding embargo against Cuba. Obama has signed a new work rule, which will take effect on Wednesday, that will allow Cuban citizens to work in the U.S. and earn salaries from American companies, by extension making it easier for Major League Baseball teams to sign Cuban players. The new rule essentially expedites the process for Cuban players to join MLB teams by eliminating the need for players to establish permanent residency elsewhere.
“In reading the regulation, it appears to mean that a Cuban baseball player can leave the country Monday and sign a major league contract on Tuesday,” a special adviser on Cuba told The New York Times. “If MLB and their franchises are assertive in their interpretations of these new rules, it would allow teams to negotiate contracts with Cuban baseball players at any time under U.S. law.”
The next step
Signing players from Cuba isn't going to be as easy as signing prospects from, say, the Dominican Republic—at least not yet. In the Dominican Republic, there are baseball academies and major league scouts who assess prospects. Cuba doesn't have that infrastructure in place yet.
Cuba does allow some players to head to Japan and play in other foreign leagues, but its policy requires a loan from the Cuban Baseball Federation. The governing body also takes a share of the salary, which would not be able to happen under the current U.S. embargo.
Major League Baseball has also shelved plans for an international draft with players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba, and the proposal is not expected to be revisited until after the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires on Dec. 1.