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The Cubans Are Coming: When and How Will Improved Relations Bring More Cuban Athletes to the U.S.?

An influx of talent could soon arrive in American professional leagues thanks to thawing tensions.
December 18, 2014, 12:10pm
Photo by Jplavoie, via WikiMedia Commons

For years, Major League Baseball team executives have hypothesized privately about which teams or agents had established illegal contacts in Cuba to be in the best position possible should the U.S. embargo ever be lifted.

It was a fun game to play because it involved talking about the aspects of Cuba that most people relished: the mystery intrigue surrounding the Caribbean country.

Read More: What Happens to the Cuban Baseball Players Who Never Make it?

Nobody knew quite when Cuban relations would open up. Could have been in 10 years. Or perhaps even another 50 years, when all those executives were long past their baseball careers. But it was fun to talk about anyway, because everyone assumed it would happen eventually. And when it did happen, well, the executives could hardly contain their excitement because the possibilities appeared endless. It was all too much.

The guessing game became much more interesting on Wednesday, when President Barack Obama announced a significant thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba. The implications for the sports world—particularly MLB, which has the highest concentration of Cuban born players of any American sports league—are obvious. An influx of talent could soon be headed to American professional leagues.

It's no longer absurd to think of a future where a Cuban born player receives permission from Cuba to play professionally in the United States while still having the opportunity to go back to the island and to also possibly represent his or her country in international competition. Previously, this was unthinkable. After all, Yasiel Puig and Aroldis Chapman did not play for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic.

"With today's news, you can start working toward that," one National League team international scouting director said.

Numerous obstacles remain.

The embargo won't be lifted anytime in the immediate future. That was made clear when Obama said in his speech that such a change in legislation would require assistance from Congress, meaning political haranguing could derail talks for months, if not years.

But here is where sport can play an important part.

In 2011, Cuba began granting residents visas to leave the country in order to drum up support for foreign investment. Part of that provision allowed baseball players to legally leave the country to play in Japan and Mexico. Talented players like Youlieski Gourriel and Alfredo Despaigne were given an opportunity to play professionally. The salaries they draw are a fraction of what they'd earn in the United States, but exponentially greater than what they earned in Cuba. Artists and musicians, meanwhile, have been granted visas to travel legally into the United States when their work has brought them there.

Nobody in the sports world knows exactly how this will play out. MLB released a statement saying they were monitoring the situation, and a baseball source said the commissioner's office spent the day meeting about the issue. But it is certainly possible that athletes could at some point could be given the type of visas given to those Cuban artists and musicians. This would most benefit athletes such as boxers, whose matches are one-time events like concerts.

Aroldis Chapman could suit up for Cuba in the next World Baseball Classic. Photo by David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Here is one possibility for how this could work for athletes with the embargo still in place: Cuba and the U.S. could work out an exchange program where Cuban players would be given permission to play in the U.S. without earning an official salary, thereby not violating the embargo. Perhaps some sort of compensation could be worked out. Perhaps leagues instead of teams could act as conduits for contracting players so that each individual team does not have to individually open up relations with Cuba.

MLB, through Cuba's participation in the World Baseball Classic, may already have an advantage in that regard. Although other leagues—maybe Major League Soccer, which has also employed Cuban defectors—could begin negotiations with Cuba as well.

But one American League international scouting director found the option of players being contracted to leagues rather than players less appetizing.

"That scares me," he said. "We want to be able to do with that player what we want to do."

Cuban baseball players who have been allowed to play in Japan during the summer are required to return to Cuba during the winter to play during the playoff portion of the Serie Nacional, Cuba's main baseball league. Similar demands may be made of players who could end up playing in the United States. Would teams be willing to allow players to play an extra set of games after having completed a full major league season?

"It could get a little hairy, but contractually you can get through those things," the AL scouting director said.

Teams would certainly be willing to make concessions to have access to this new group of players.

"The possibilities are very intriguing," the AL scouting director said. "It's an opportunity to see more players that we're not used to seeing before."

Further, improved relations could lead to a sports team or league academies opening up in Cuba. Perhaps the NBA would want to develop talent in the athlete rich country. Maybe the NFL would want to further their plan of global domination by broadcasting games into Cuba. Perhaps MLB teams would want to mirror their investment in other Latin American countries in Cuba, although likely in a different way.

"MLB is not going to have a relationship with Cuba like they have with the Dominican Republic," the NL scouting director said. "They're not going to be able to walk into Cuba and tell them what to do."

Those who are skeptical that any immediate changes can happen should remember that sport—which always been an effective front for political propaganda—could be the avenue governments choose to symbolize the improving relations between the two countries. If relations do normalize, the idea that an athlete from one country would play sports in another does not seem farfetched at all.

Who will be hurt by Wednesday's announcement? Smugglers, agents friendly with smugglers, and the Mexican drug cartels that control the route out of Cuba. The likelihood that athletes will want to leave will now be diminished—at least temporarily—with the possibility open of a legal exit in the not so distant future. Not that this is an unfortunate development.

"Anything that can take the riff raff out of the equation, people who shouldn't be involved with baseball at any level, I'm all for it," said the NL international scouting director.

Cuba's Serie Nacional, which has already suffered an exodus of talent recently, could soon see even more of its players leaving the island. Cuban baseball will need to reorganize.

But for the moment, it's all hypothetical. Nothing may change, or everything may change. Who knows? The guessing game just got a lot more fun.