WASHINGTON — Getting from Cuba to the big leagues has never just been about 450-foot home runs and 100-mph fastballs.
When New York Mets’ slugging outfielder Yoenis Cespedes decided in 2011 that he wanted to leave his country to play baseball in the United States, he did what dozens of Cuban baseball players have done since the Castro government came to power more than 50 years ago.
Risking arrest and their lives, Cespedes and 10 members of his family fled the island at night on a small boat. Twenty-three hours later, they arrived in the Dominican Republic. Cespedes then defected, setting himself on the road to a multimillion-dollar contract with a major-league team. At least one relative who remained in Cuba was jailed, and Cespedes has never returned home.
But since the United States and Cuba announced last year that they would begin to normalize relations, the Obama administration and Major League Baseball (MLB) have been quietly working to create a system that would end the arduous journeys Cuban baseball players have had to endure. Not incidentally, it would create for the Obama administration a symbolic bridge between the two countries that would demonstrate how much the relationship had changed, and open up a new fan base and deep well of talent for major-league teams.
In October, MLB’s top lawyer, Dan Halem, met in New York with Fidel Castro’s son Antonio, a senior international-baseball official who is also the Cuban national team’s doctor, to express baseball’s interest in overhauling the arrangement for players.
Several baseball officials also traveled to Cuba in October to examine fields and other facilities as they determine whether Major League Baseball can play games there next spring.
MLB would ultimately like to have an orderly system that would allow teams to scout and sign players there. Once players were signed, MLB would like the players and their families to be given visas for travel between the two countries.
Obama administration and baseball officials said they had received some indications from Cuban authorities that they would be willing to send players to the majors. But some experts on Cuba said they would be surprised if the Cuban government ever allowed players to go to the United States to play professionally.
A message left at the Cuban Embassy in Washington, seeking comment, was not returned.
To allow MLB to conduct business in Cuba, the organization and the Obama administration would have to navigate a maze of rules and procedures overseen by the Treasury and State departments.
The U.S. and Cuba have begun normalizing relations, but the U.S. embargo against Cuba remains. For it to be lifted, the Republican-controlled Congress would need to vote to end it, something it has shown little interest in doing.
But the talks alone carry heavy symbolic significance for President Obama’s push for a thaw in the relationship between the two nations after more than 50 years of Cold War hostility, in part, by emphasizing the common threads that bind Americans and Cubans.
Baseball is woven tightly into the national identities of both countries, and even over decades of animosity, the U.S. and Cuba have played each other in international competitions like the Olympics.
“We very much support baseball being a part of the opening between the United States and Cuba,” said Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications. “It’s an institution that is revered in both countries, and insofar as we are deepening our people-to-people ties with Cuba and rebuilding bridges between our two societies, clearly Major League Baseball has a role.”
Rhodes, who was one of two senior White House officials who secretly negotiated with the Cuban government to forge the December deal to normalize relations, said the two sides often spoke of baseball when they met.
“The Cubans take a lot of pride in their baseball players,” said Rhodes, a Mets fan who said his team would not be in the World Series without Cespedes, one of 18 Cubans playing in the major leagues. “It’s a people-to-people bridge.”
The Cuban government has an incentive to fix the system. When Cuban players go to play in other countries such as Japan, Cuba’s government is compensated. Cuba gets nothing in return when its players defect, and the defections are embarrassing and demoralizing.
Besides facing the dangerous boat trip, some players have been kidnapped, as well as exploited by smugglers with ties to drug cartels.
In recent weeks, MLB — with the White House’s blessing — applied for a license to conduct business in Cuba through the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury, which enforces sanctions that prohibit any U.S. money from going directly to the Cuban government.
Creating an exception for Cuban players is tricky because a portion of their salaries would go directly to the government in Havana, thus violating the U.S. embargo. If the government approves MLB’s request, the MLB commissioner’s office would then need to negotiate the terms for signing players with the players association and the Cuban government.
“This is something that we believe needs to be fixed, but we certainly do not have the authority to do so on our own,” said Halem, the MLB lawyer. “We’re cautiously optimistic that all the parties … will come together and find a solution.”