In the latest game of U.S.-Cuba baseball diplomacy, Raúl Castro has home field advantage.
The Cuban president on March 22 hosted the first Major League Baseball game in his country since 1999, a potent symbol of MLB’s efforts to take advantage of U.S. President Barack Obama’s diplomatic opening with the island. So far, however, Castro doesn’t appear to be playing ball.
The game in Havana between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba’s national team marked another milestone in the colorful history of baseball diplomacy between the two countries. But despite Obama’s outreach and historic visit to Cuba, Castro is unlikely to give MLB a major foothold in Cuba or direct access to its pool of world-class baseball players.
“I don’t expect any huge monumental change coming out of this,” says Cuba baseball historian Peter Bjarkman, author of the forthcoming “Cuba’s Baseball Defectors.” “Right now, the Cuban government as well as the Cuban baseball federation doesn’t know how it will deal with this. They weren’t ready for these changes coming so soon. They aren’t sure what to do. They’re cautious.”
In the 15 months since the Obama administration announced its intent to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, there’s been a rush to capitalize by U.S. businesses, including MLB franchises. Airlines this month began bidding for flight routes to Havana, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide on March 19 became the first U.S. hotel company to sign a deal in Cuba, and the Tampa Bay Rays were just one of many teams vying to play in today’s game.
“MLB wants to expand their game, expand their marketplace,” says Bjarkman, who is also senior writer for BaseballdeCuba.com. “It’s the same reason the NFL is playing in Europe, or the NBA in China.”
MLB is already well-known in Cuba, where baseball is also the national pastime. Before the 1959 Cuban Revolution, MLB teams held spring training on the island, Cuban players were free to sign with U.S. clubs, and Havana even fielded a minor league team known as the Sugar Kings that was on the cusp of entering the Majors years before the Montreal Expos became the first international MLB franchise.
While there’s no turning back the clock, it would appear in Cuba’s interest to move beyond the current setup in which Cubans must give up citizenship to play for MLB teams. A record 150 ballplayers defected in 2015, depriving Cuba of what may well be its top commodity by measure of the multi-million dollar salaries of those playing in the U.S. One notable example is Yoenis Céspedes, who traded the average $40 a month salary in Cuba’s leagues for a three-year, $75 million contract with the New York Mets.
MLB’s door back into Cuba seemed to open a little wider on March 15 when the Obama administration eased travel and trade rules and said it would permit Cubans to earn salaries in the U.S. This potentially made it legal for MLB teams to sign contracts directly with Cuban ballplayers who were previously forced to first renounce their Cuban citizenship before joining the Majors.
“It pops the ball into the Cuban court, so to speak, because MLB is no longer restricted from speaking with Cubans,” a legal adviser on Cuba told AQ.
Such a setup would require flexibility on the part of Castro. While the president in late 2013 lifted a ban on professional athletics and allowed ballplayers for the first time to sign contracts with foreign teams, his government collects a 20 percent cut of those players’ salaries. That is untenable for the U.S. Treasury, which does not allow U.S. businesses to give money directly to the Cuban government, meaning that Castro would need to be willing to loosen the Communist Party’s control over ballplayer activities and contracts.
Several workarounds have been floated, including an MLB proposal to create a nonprofit organization in Cuba that would take the government’s place in receiving any cut of Cuban players’ salaries, with the money then invested in baseball development. Other ideas include the government allowing athletes to register as independent businesses or to form a cooperative that could directly negotiate with MLB, according to the legal adviser.
Castro is unlikely to field any of those ideas, argues Roberto González Echevarría, a Cuban-born professor of literature at Yale and author of “The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball.” As a sign of the government’s unlikeliness to release control over baseball, he pointed to how today’s game in Havana is an invitation-only event where most tickets are going to Communist Party loyalists.
“It has to do with political fealty, with being for the regime and being rewarded for it,” he says, adding: “The [baseball] situation is at a standstill. The regime insists that they negotiate all contracts and keep a slice.”
In another indicator that Cuban nationals are unlikely to soon play in the U.S., Bjarkman pointed to the defection last month of star Cuban ballplayers Yulieski and Lourdes Gourriel. The brothers were considered at the top of Cuba’s list for players to potentially send to the U.S., and their politically connected family would have known if there was any chance of a breakthrough with MLB, according to Bjarkman.
“That was the clearest sign that there will be no immediate deal between Cuba and MLB,” Bjarkman said. “The Gourriel family is very central in the Cuban baseball system. If there was a deal on the table, they would not have left Cuba.”
More likely is that U.S. baseball will gain a more gradual presence on the island, such as through the televising of MLB games. Currently, Cuba allows one tape-delayed MLB game to be shown every Sunday, but never with teams that feature prominent Cuban defectors. The Tampa Bay Rays were selected to play in Havana today partly because the team lacks any big-name Cuban stars – underscoring Castro’s reticence to change his playbook anytime soon.
“On the baseball front and the larger political front, Cuba will have a major say in how anything plays out,” Bjarkman says. “They’ll give lip-service to working with MLB but they won’t give away the store.”
Kurczy is a special correspondent to AQ.