If one ripple from the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations means baseball prospects get off the island and into the major leagues without payoffs to smugglers and threats from kidnappers, it’s hard to see the downside.
Just don’t expect too much, too soon. Barely two hours after President Barack Obama’s dramatic announcement Wednesday in Washington, both MLB and its players’ union acknowledged as much in statements.
“We will keep our clubs informed if this different direction may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba,” MLB said.
“We remain hopeful that today’s announcement will lead to further positive developments,” the union said.
Let’s hope so, considering how few positive developments have occurred before now. There were 25 Cuban-born players in the big leagues this past season, the best of which is arguably Los Angeles Dodgers star Yasiel Puig. The story of how he finally got there, after four failed attempts to leave Cuba, involved a boat trip, a detour where he was held hostage in a Mexican motel room, repeated extortion threats and crossing the U.S. border illegally.
On Tuesday, South Florida businessman Gilberto Suarez pleaded guilty for his role in the conspiracy to smuggle Puig out in return for a sizable cut of his multimillion-dollar salary.
Suarez was the second man this year to enter a guilty plea related to the smuggling of a Cuban baseball player into the U.S. Last month, 41-year-old Eliezer Lazo was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for conspiring to smuggle 1,000 Cubans, among them Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin. Sadly, stories like Puig’s unsavory and sometimes life-threatening journey differs from so many others only in the details.
Cuba has been turning out world-class athletes — and not just ballplayers — for more than a century. But since the 1959 revolution, most have stayed put.
Track stars and multiple medalists such as Alberto Juantorena and Javier Sotomayor took star turns on the Olympic stage, but never reaped rewards that were commensurate with their talents. So, too, did heavyweights Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon, two of only three boxers to win gold medals at three Olympics and considered among the greatest amateurs ever. But neither turned pro.
Stevenson was so smooth that a fight against Muhammad Ali was often hyped and loudly debated when both were near their prime, but never came off. And some boxing observers think Savon, who succeeded Stevenson, was definitely the better of the two.
But baseball was the stage where Cuba’s athletes shined brightest. Its version of the Big Red Machine dominated the international scene from the 1940s on, even as team officials thinned out the ranks for potential defectors and conducted bed checks with a zealousness the Cuban army would have admired.
But after back-to-back gold medals in Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996) — and a raft of defections in spite of the dangers — the cupboard was nearly empty. The team Cuba brought to Sydney for the 2000 Games was largely the same it had sent to the previous two Olympics, as well as every important international competition in between. It was old by any measure and only three players on the squad were under 25 at the time — young enough to make the risk seem worthwhile. Around the same time, half-brothers and defectors Livan and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez were pitching for the Giants and Yankees in preparation for the major league playoffs a month down the road.
That Cuban team lost the gold-medal game 4-0 to a U.S. team composed largely of young pro prospects and aging castoffs, and only so much has changed since. Many of the best players, such as Puig, Jose Fernandez and Jose Abreu, still find ways to escape. Most of those establish residency outside the U.S. in order to become free agents not covered by MLB’s amateur draft. While that ruse often results in big deals, MLB is already hatching plans to get rid of the exemption and make such players part of an international draft by 2017.
Making the flow of ballplayers more orderly and less dangerous would benefit just about everyone in the game. There’s even talk at the moment of MLB teams opening baseball academies in Cuba modeled on similar programs already up and running in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, two nations that are providing a big infusion of talent. But until the leaders of two nations that have spent more than a half-century trying to torment one another prove they can cooperate as well, talk is all it is.