When we think of the average U.S.-born catcher or right-fielder, we typically conjure up a young boy tossing a ball on a farm, honing his craft, excelling in college, and then getting drafted by his favorite team growing up. This feel-good story doesn’t apply to Cuban-born players.
…athletes go through hell and high water just to have a chance to get to The Show.
Cuba has produced some of Major League Baseball’s elite talent, from Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox to Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets. However, because the Cuban regime has prohibited players from applying their talents abroad since the revolution in the 1950s, athletes go through hell and high water just to have a chance to get to The Show.
Look at Cincinnati Reds outfielder Yasiel Puig. The charismatic star was smuggled out of the island nation by a Mexican crime syndicate called Los Zetas. He was transferred to a small island off the Yucatan Peninsula and held there until $250,000 was paid to the smugglers. Soon after, he signed a seven-year $42 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was reported that Puig was still pursued by the gang for additional payment.
This dangerous trend is set to change. The trade-off? It’s likely funding a brutal regime.
Safe at Home
MLB and its players’ association recently announced a new agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB) that will permit athletes to sign big league contracts without defecting. Under the terms, Cuban players would be signed out of the country and granted a work visa, pending government approval. But, because of current U.S. policy, they will still need to travel to a third country to apply for a visa.
Commissioner Rob Manfred appeared to be motivated by humanitarian concerns. He said in a statement that this arrangement seeks to abolish the trafficking of players from Cuba that so many current and former pitchers, outfielders, and infielders have experienced. This could also mean that players do not need to be separated from their families any longer; the government typically denies exit visas to families of athletes who defected.
The league confirmed that the deal was made through amendments to the Cuban Asset Control Regulations of March 2016, which introduced provisions of a general license from the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). In a letter dated September 2016, OFAC confirmed that an MLB-FCB partnership would be valid.
FCB Goes Bridge
The impoverished FCB is set to rake in millions of dollars in future income under the two primary structures of the agreement.
The first requires franchises to pay for the contractual release of players who are 24 years old or younger and who have five or fewer years of service. The federation, which decides if it will release the player, will receive 25% of the signing bonus.
The second allows teams to sign Cuban players who are 25 or older and who have at least six years of experience in the FCB. This does not need the consent of the entity, but teams will pay up to 20% of the total value of players’ contracts.
The consensus is that this is a home run for MLB and Cuba, but it has hit into foul territory with the Trump administration and some Republicans.
A Swing and Miss
The White House has not confirmed if it will try to block the deal, telling The Washington Post that it “is actively assessing the Obama-era policies” that MLB utilized to make the agreement happen. But several Republicans are urging the administration to act.
“Legality of recent agreement between MLB & Cuban Baseball Federation rests on Obama era ruling that federation not controlled by Cuban govt. This is not just factually incorrect it is a farce & I am working to get it overruled as soon as possible.”
The main disagreement is the legitimacy of the FCB. While described as an independent institution, it is just another arm of the regime. This means all the money given to the federation is at the disposal of the government. Also, who is its vice president? Antonio Castro Soto, Fidel Castro’s son.
An alternative was put forward by the National Review’s Elliott Abrams:
“The cure for that situation was simple: Change the rules so that any Cuban player who escapes to freedom can sign a contract. The fake ‘residency in a third country’ rule could easily have been eliminated — and the leagues also could have lobbied the U.S. government to force Cuba to free up its players. But that’s not what the Major Leagues have done.”
What About the Minor Leaguers?
The move is a mixed bag. It eliminates smugglers from the equation, creates a safer environment for the players, and increases the talent pool that could expand the number of teams. But then there is the myriad of other issues: It’s a tax on players, revenues will be used by the authoritarian regime, the deal reeks of cronyism, and MLB still neglects the minor league system.
There isn’t a guarantee that these Cuban players will be sent to the main roster. They will go through the dreaded minor leagues like every other player, and they may or may not get called up. Unless you’re Rusney Castillo, who is getting millions a year from the Boston Red Sox to hit and field in the minors, you’re in for a rough time: sleeping on friends’ sofas, taking on debt, working a full-time job, and having enough stamina to prove your worth.
Where are MLB’s humanitarian concerns for the minor leaguers who barely make ends meet?
You cannot fault critics for being skeptical of this agreement because if there is one thing that the MLB brass has shown consistent contempt for has been its players and the overall game. From the egregious service time rule to leadership’s abandonment of tradition, Manfred and owners have shown that they are ready, willing, and able to employ every measure necessary to boost revenues, increase ratings, and put more butts in the seats.
While it’s too bad that it’s becoming harder for fans to sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game during the seventh-inning stretch, it’s going to be just as hard for Cuban players to earn free market salaries.