Road to the major leagues from Cuba still a dizzying one
by Ray Glier @rayglier October 7, 2013 1:00PM ET
Yasiel Puig is among emerging Cuban baseball stars, but their journey
remains under political, economic pressure
ATLANTA — Yasiel Puig’s parents, Omar and Maritza, were in attendance
last week at Turner Field when their son and the Los Angeles Dodgers
started a playoff series against the Atlanta Braves. But the Puigs’
journey there was one that, despite becoming more common, remains
squeezed by political and financial pressures on both sides of the
90-mile strip of Atlantic Ocean that separates the U.S. and Cuba.
Puig and Oakland A’s outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who dazzled in his
debut last season and won this year’s Home Run Derby, are headliners in
this fall’s playoffs. They are two of the 21 Cuban-born players on major
league rosters in 2013, and while the league has seen its share of Cuban
stars over the year, Puig and Cespedes reflect a trend that has seen
what seems like one or two new players to make a splash in the majors
every year for half a decade. Despite a recently announced relaxing of
regulations by the Cuban government, which will now allow its players to
play in other countries, not much is expected to change for Cuban
players looking to make it in America.
“I’m not allowed to talk about Cuban prospects. It’s a baseball rule,”
said Stan Kasten, president of the Dodgers, which signed Puig to a
seven-year, $42 million contract. “Every week we see another guy scouts
rave about, so it appears there is talent. They play baseball there on a
very high level.”
Jaime Torres, Puig’s agent and a representative of several Cuban
baseball players who defected to the U.S. to show off their skills and
reap million-dollar bonanzas in the big leagues, considers himself an
enemy of the state, suggesting he’d be welcome in Cuba just long enough
to be put in leg irons.
“They have a cell waiting for me for representing these players,” he said.
Torres — whose office is in Boca Raton, Fla., and who said he is
half-Cuban — said the money the players make should be allowed to flow
freely back to their home country to improve infrastructure.
Peter Bjarkman, a U.S.-based scholar of Cuban baseball, takes the
opposite view, saying the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, in place since
1960, and the cojoining policy of Major League Baseball, is ruining
Cuban baseball. Bjarkman said Major League Baseball is greedily
strip-mining Cuba’s biggest resource — its talented young players — and
harming the game.
Yet the two men agree there will be no thaw between the two sides, even
with the recently publicized laws by Cuba’s National Institute of Sport,
Physical Education and Recreation (INDER) to allow Cuban baseball
players to play overseas. The ruling is not going to suddenly lead to an
influx of Cuban superstars like Puig and Cespedes in the big leagues.
The law will allow Cuban baseball players to play in Europe and Asia —
not the U.S. — and their contracts and salaries will be tightly
controlled by the Cuban government.
In addition, under the INDER policy, the players will have to return to
Cuba in the winter months to play for leagues there, a requirement U.S.
major league teams would likely find intolerable, considering their
financial investment in players.
“To get here to the United States, nothing is changed,” Torres said.
“There are still a lot of hurdles to get over. No. 1 is the U.S.-Cuba
embargo. A Cuban national cannot work in the United States and send
money to the Cuban government. That law in Cuba requires that players
that sign with the foreign club have to negotiate through Cuban
government. That alone will make it impossible.”
It’s a step, Torres said, but not much of one in reality. Bjarkman agrees.
“As long as there is a U.S. embargo of Cuba, there is not likely to be
any ‘normalization’ with baseball or any other phase of Cuban-American
relations,” Bjarkman wrote on his blog.
The embargo wall many Cuban players want to climb over to play baseball
in the U.S. is instituted by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)
of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which “administers and enforces
economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national
security goals against targeted foreign countries.”
It is an onerous policy that many feel is designed to force a regime
change in Cuba and influence the country’s culture and politics. The
U.S. government insists the communist government oppresses the Cuban
people. The Cuban government insists capitalists would oppress the
working class if allowed to reappear unabated after 55 years.
To get into the major leagues, a player must first get off the island
and establish residency in another country — Mexico and Haiti are
in-vogue sanctuaries — and then petition the U.S. government to unblock
him so he can negotiate with a major league team.
Torres has instructed Puig never to talk about his contract because he
says it might endanger relatives living in Cuba. Kasten said Puig’s
father, mother and sister live in Florida. They attended two games in
the National League division series in Atlanta, but Torres would not
permit a reporter to talk to them.
It is a myth that Cuban-born players in the major and minor leagues are
restricted from sending earnings back to the island. OFAC regulations
say “remittances” can go back to “close family members” but not to the
Communist Party or government entities.
“Of course money goes back from players. Of course it does,” said a
major league international scout who asked not be identified because his
team has not authorized him to speak to the media on the subject. “A lot
of exiles send money. As long as they have family there, they are going
to send money. That’s how Cuba survives. The ballplayers (in Cuba) are
privileged and make $60 a month. Imagine what the people who don’t play
baseball are paid … They are dependent on people sending them money.”
Fredi Gonzalez, manager of the Atlanta Braves, was born in Cuba and left
with his family in 1966 when was 3 years old, on one of the last
“freedom flights” out of the country. He smiled wide when asked about
relations possibly improving and Cuban ballplayers more easily being
allowed into the U.S.
“It would be a good thing,” he said.
Cuban ‘pressure cooker’
Cuban baseball has seen better days, which is a primary reason Cuban
players are going to be allowed to play overseas. The national team
needs money for equipment, and it needs to stop the bleeding after the
departure of so many stars. The players may be mollified into not
fleeing for the U.S. if they can make more money.
“The announcement and the changes specified were aimed largely, if not
almost exclusively, at disarming an increasingly tense situation on the
home front and thus letting some of the potentially explosive steam out
of the pressure cooker that is the current National Series scene,”
He says he is drawn to the Cuban game because it has not been
commercialized like U.S. baseball and remains a sport of the common man
in Cuba. Indeed, baseball there exists not to enrich the businessman but
to thrill the people. Baseball is baseball, not a vehicle to glom money
Torres, however, said Cuba could reap economic benefits for its people,
as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have for years, if the embargo
were relaxed on both sides of the water.
“It would help incredibly. Just look at how much the Dominican Republic
or Venezuela depends on the earnings of players. Most of that money goes
back to that country,” said Torres, who certainly stands to benefit if
he could represent more players from Cuba. “Pick a player, like Sammy
Sosa. They build a big house for themselves, then a house for their
mother and father, which means they are buying construction materials.
They are hiring laborers and architects, and after the house is finished
they are hiring maids and people to wash the car and take care of the
property. They invest and buy a restaurant or shopping mall. All of it
Torres is skeptical of Cuba’s new policy, wondering how long the
government will allow players to earn a plausible salary overseas in
Japan, Mexico and Asia.
“I have seen this before in the ’90s, with allowing them to go to
Japan,” Torres said. “The reason they did it then — and the reason they
are doing it now — is to calm them down and prevent them from defecting
and giving them hopes.
“The Cuban government then became unhappy that those players they
allowed to play in Japan did not have to depend on the government, so
that program was eliminated. They want to control you and make you
Bjarkman adamantly rejects such fierce debunking of the Cuban model.
“If you see things from the Cuban perspective, they happen to want to
protect their own national baseball (important to the society and the
Cuban people and the only remaining independent baseball universe
completely free from MLB contacts),” he wrote in an email. “They also
believe that athletes should remain loyal to the system that grew and
“We may all disagree with (Cuba’s) stance here (in the U.S.), but how
far do we go in imposing our political system and philosophy on other
Source: “Road to the major leagues from Cuba still a dizzying one | Al
Jazeera America” –