Season of Change

December 29, 2014

EVER NOTICE how Cuba makes people crazy? By people, I mean mostly Americans, and by crazy I mean the way most of them react to the Castros' wheezing socialist machine. Cuba prompted Kennedy and Khrushchev to nearly blow up the world in 1962, after all, and since then it has been all extremes: Freedom or dictatorship, exile or traitor, embargo or appeasement, the coolest cocktail culture or a human rights nightmare.

Yasiel Puig? Let me guess. You love him or hate him. And when you speak of the Dodgers' outfielder, either way, you usually end up yelling.

So when President Obama announced last week that he was normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba for the first time since 1961, it was no shock to hear breathless reports from the worlds of diplomacy, business and sports that the cold war was finally over. There was talk of McDonald's on the Malecón, a Disneyland Havana. It was the Berlin Wall toppling all over again: People got giddy.

"The commissioner of baseball should be bold and propose a major league team in Cuba," says Bill Richardson, the former U.N. ambassador who, in negotiating the release of political prisoners from Cuba in 1996, informed Fidel that his pitchers needed work. "They have the players; the issue is financing. I would get a wealthy guy like Carlos Slim of Mexico or Gustavo Cisneros of Venezuela, and entice them to set up a team in Cuba. It's worth the effort for political reasons, and eventually for economic reasons it'll happen."

Though I'd love to see Puig and his Dodgers play in Havana, even I know that this idea is beyond gonzo—and will remain so for the next 20 years. The Cuban capital will need a multibillion-dollar infrastructure infusion and at least one generation versed in disposable income before it's ready for the big leagues. But for pure symbolism, Richardson is onto something.

Since 1991, when pitcher Rene Arocha became the first national-team star to defect, baseball has provided the American public with vivid reminders of the human cost of the two nations' divide. Tales of players braving sharks in the Florida Straits gave way to those about braving the sharks running smuggling scams, but the end result was too often the same: a multimillion-dollar contract, yes, but also wives, children, roots left behind, seemingly forever.

There are plenty who say that will all change now: Cuba will become another Dominican Republic, a feeder system for the American game—and thus an ironic repudiation of Fidel's baseball-loving, anti-Yanqui heart.

Never mind that Obama's move only permits the opening of embassies and the relaxing of travel and banking restrictions. Never mind that the 54-year U.S. trade embargo remains, and figures to stay in place under a Republican Congress. Richardson is certain the door for players to exit has been kicked open.

I'm not. It's no accident that the grounds of Havana's Villa Marista—the notorious state security jail where both Alan Gross, the U.S. government contractor released last week after five years, and future Yankees pitching legend Orlando (El Duque) Hernàndez were interrogated—boasts a beautifully manicured baseball field. The game has long been central to the regime's image, a daily reminder of its fierce control. And that regime remains.

In 2013, Cuba announced that athletes would be allowed to sign overseas contracts—with the caveat that state handlers would dictate schedules and pocket a hunk of their pay. You almost can't blame the regime: Defectors like Puig and White Sox slugger Jose Abreu have made cashing in look easy. In August outfielder Rusney Castillo signed a seven-year contract with the Red Sox worth $72.5 million.

"They're going to try to manipulate the situation to their advantage," says Pirates bullpen coach Euclides Rojas. "They always do."

In 1994, Rojas took to a raft with his family, fearing that his wife or toddler son would fall into the sea if he slept. They drifted five days. Then he spent six months interned at a U.S. holding camp in Guantànamo. His old teammate, Arocha, sponsored his admittance to the U.S.; that first-line clot of defectors in South Florida form a close community still.

Six weeks ago Rojas sat in his house with El Duque and watched a music video of a song called "Puente" (Bridge), eight minutes devoted to the journey taken by the Cubans of both Havana and Miami. Both men wept. But when Obama made his announcement last week, Rojas kept his head. He backs the move, warily: Engagement seems the best way to infect, then kill, the beast. And if nothing else, for the first time now, he can see the collapse coming.

"I'm a Cuban," Rojas says. "I'm an American citizen, but I'm born in Cuba and I love that country. And I know: This is the beginning of the end."

How would an influx of Cuban players affect the major leagues?

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PHOTOSIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ILLUSTRATION

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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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