Over the past several years, the United States’ relationship with Cuba has undergone some dramatic changes. Although the re-establishment of diplomatic relationships with Cuba may hold great political implications, it should not come as a surprise that this new relationship has a direct impact on Major League Baseball. Many MLB executives and organizations have actually expressed excitement toward these recent changes and have noted that these changes could represent a significant alteration in the way MLB organizations acquire Cuban players.
International players in general already play a major role in baseball, as 224 international players made opening day rosters in 2014, accounting for 26.3% of opening day roster players. It is undisputed that the Dominican Republic and Venezuela dominate the international player pool. Combined, the two countries made up 63.4% of all international players and 16.6% of all players in general in 2014. Although Cuba comes in a respectable third, players that defect from the country tend to make ginormous impacts. Five Cuban players were selected to play in the All-Star Game in 2014: Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes, Alexei Ramirez, Yasiel Puig, and Aroldis Chapman. Abreu and Cespedes have established themselves as two of the most feared hitters in baseball. In Abreu’s rookie year in 2014, he led the American League in slugging percentage and OPS+ while batting .317 with 36 home runs and 107 runs batted in. Abreu not only won the Rookie of the Year Award, but also was awarded Silver Slugger and came in fourth place in MVP voting. During Cespedes’ four years in the major leagues, he has averaged 30 home runs and 103 runs batted in per full season while setting career highs in both categories in 2015. Chapman has established himself as one of the best closers in baseball and holds the world record for fastest pitch ever thrown at 105.1 MPH.
It’s pretty clear that Cuban players have made themselves known in the game of baseball. However, getting players from Cuba to come play in the major leagues is a difficult and sometimes painstaking process. In fact, MLB organizations have to jump over several hurdles before signing international players in general. Signing players from Cuba can be even more difficult. Because of Cuba’s communist regime, Cuban players seeking to sign a contract with an American club must either defect from the country or undergo a very long process to leave Cuba legally. Most players choose to defect. In fact, MLB.com reports that infielder Yoan Moncada, who is currently in the Boston Red Sox organization, “is the only known top player to leave the island legally.”
Defecting is a risky process. A “defector,” according to Wikipedia.org, is one who “gives up allegiance to one state in exchange for allegiance to another, in a way which is considered illegitimate by the first state.” Players must first find a way to escape Cuba. Many players have reported finding their way onto a boat to any other country that isn’t communist or escaping while playing on the national team in another country. Once the player has escaped, he has left Cuba illegally. In order to be eligible to sign a major league contract, a player must establish residency in another country. If a player establishes residency in the United States, he becomes eligible for the First-Year Player Draft, where he will most likely receive a significant cut in his signing bonus. Although it may seem like the process is simple enough, defecting players are forced to hire a “front man” who plays the role of agent to the player. The front man, who sometimes provides services for players to escape, ensures that the player is able to completely defect from Cuba and transition into the United States. However, the player is usually held captive by his front man until the front man has been compensated for his services, which a player usually pays for by sacrificing a fraction of his contract. After establishing this residency, he must petition for free-agency from the MLB, which usually takes several months but is not a very hard process go through, and requested to be unblocked by US Office of Foreign Assets Control. Once a player has done all of this, he may sign a contract and begin playing baseball in America.
The process is never guaranteed, as some players do not receive sizeable contracts and/or can’t reach the major leagues. Should a player fail to reach the major leagues, he is not allowed back into Cuba. Cuban players often defect from Cuba knowing that they may never see their families again.
It’s easy to see how diplomatic relationships with Cuba affect baseball. Inspired by recent progress, the MLB and Cuba have agreed to let the Tampa Bay Rays travel to the island to play an exhibition game against the Cuban National Team on Tuesday, March 22 of this year. This will be the first time a major league team will be allowed into Cuba to play since the Baltimore Orioles in 1999. This historic game marks a step in the right direction for giving Cuban players a smoother, clearer, and safer path for pursuing the game they love.