Will some of Jose Abreu's pals be following him?

Photographer: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Baseball May Be Cuba Deal's Big Winner

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
Read More.
a | A

President Barack Obama's announcement that the U.S. would step toward normalizing relations with Cuba is pretty much a win for everyone involved -- including baseball fans.

For decades now, Cuban baseball players have been forced to risk their lives to flee to America for a chance at a better life and a professional athletic career. Harrowing tales from former New York Yankees pitcher El Duque, née Orlando Hernandez, successfully escaping Cuba on a fishing boat on his ninth attempt, to the more recent saga of Los Angeles Dodgers star Yasiel Puig being held hostage by a gang of human traffickers, highlight the lengths to which Cuban players have been willing to go to seek refuge in Major League Baseball. The culprit, of course, was the disastrous federal policy, including the "wet foot, dry foot" requirement for a Cuban refugee to establish residency in a third country before seeking asylum in the U.S. But it was made all the worse by additional limitations and restrictions imposed by MLB.

As Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan wrote in April, the league has turned a blind eye to the human-smuggling circumstances of its Cuban players while reaping the benefits of their talent and star power. Now, Obama -- or should I say Hillary? -- has spared MLB of having to address the brunt of the problem, potentially blowing open the pipeline for the talent that will make up the next generation of Cuban baseball stars.

MLB issued a typical non-statement in response to Obama's announcement:

Major League Baseball is closely monitoring the White House's announcement regarding Cuban-American relations. While there are not sufficient details to make a realistic evaluation, we will continue to track this significant issue, and we will keep our Clubs informed if this different direction may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba.

To be sure, the embargo has yet to be lifted, so it makes sense that the league would refrain from speculating about the immediate impact. But in the long run, easing restrictions on travel and trade and, by extension, labor will hopefully at least provide Cuban prospects a safe, legal way to make it to the majors. 

What would that system look like? Unless the embargo is lifted (requiring unlikely cooperation from the soon-to-be Republican-controlled Congress), it will remain illegal to scout prospects in Cuba. The major obstacle for Cuban prospects in MLB remains the national governments in each country, and will require a major legislative overhaul to fix.

But even if that happens, expect to see much negotiation between MLB and the Havana-run Cuban league over the best way to develop and supply talent that would benefit both sides. The success of MLB-sponsored baseball academies throughout the Dominican Republic provides a potential blueprint, and Fidel Castro had expressed interest in such a system years before stepping down from power.

The situation is most complicated when it comes to sending major-league-ready talent to MLB. Professional baseball within Cuba is very high quality, and a one-way supply line likely wouldn't fly. Last year, Cuba lifted the ban on athletes playing in foreign leagues, allowing players to sign with teams in Mexico and Japan -- as long as they returned to play in Cuba in the winter. Yet, just as Cuba would want to avoid diluting its own league for the benefit of American ball, MLB would want to avoid risking its players to injury during the offseason.

Perhaps MLB and Cuba could reach an agreement along the lines of the league's posting system for Japanese players. In exchange for the rights to sign a player, an MLB team pays a Nippon Professional Baseball team a "release fee" of up to $20 million. Cuba might be more willing to let U.S. baseball interests tap into its talent pool for the right price. But there's no telling how high that price could go given the level national pride Cubans derive from baseball.

If the talent stream does open between the two countries, so, too, will the ripe market for American baseball in Cuba. Baseball would join the various other imports to Cuba, adding another country to MLB International's global reach. Opening trade to spur economic development could raise incomes and establish an entirely new consumer base for MLB's product.

All this remains little more than speculation until much more significant reform takes place. But a globalized league already dominated by Dominican and Venezuelan players could eventually add Cubans to the list thanks to Obama's breakthrough.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net