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Thursday, December 18, 2014

"At one point Wednesday, Major League Baseball became so concerned about the reaction to Obama’s announcement that it sent a directive to its 30 teams pointing out that it remained illegal to scout players in Cuba or to sign them, because the U.S. embargo of the island remained in effect," and can only be removed with congressional approval-NY Times, Schmidt

12/17/14, "Once again, Cuba, with its history of the sport, beckons to baseball," NY Times, Michael S. Schmidt

"At a dinner in one of Fidel Castro’s palaces in 1999, Castro and several of Major League Baseball’s senior executives discussed one of the few bonds between Cuba and the United States: baseball.

The executives, including baseball’s commissioner, Bud Selig, were there for an exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national team, as part of an effort by President Bill Clinton to thaw relations.

As the dinner stretched into the early hours of the morning, Castro regaled Selig with tales from the history of Cuban baseball and fantasized about what would happen if the United States and Cuba ever normalized ties. Castro told one of the executives, Sandy Alderson, who had overseen preparations for the trip, that he was open to the idea of major league teams having academies in Cuba similar to the ones in the Dominican Republic, where teenage players honed their skills in the hopes of making it to the majors. Fifteen years after that dinner, the vision of an active relationship between Cuba and Major League Baseball became a little more real Wednesday after President Barack Obama’s announcement that he planned to restore full diplomatic relations with the island nation.

In one of Obama’s most significant foreign policy initiatives, he said he would open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half century and said the United States would ease restrictions on travel and banking.

When Castro took power in 1959, Cuba’s pool of talented baseball players - one of the largest outside the United States - became off-limits to major league teams, except for the stream of players who defected. The 19 Cuban-born players who were major leaguers in all or part of the 2014 season - like Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig - made up the highest number since 1967, when there were 30. But scouts and general managers have said it would be far higher if teams could send representatives to Cuba and sign players, and then develop them.

Significant foreign policy announcements from Washington do not usually prompt the baseball commissioner’s office or the players union to respond. But after Obama addressed the nation Wednesday, both released terse statements saying they were monitoring the situation.

Baseball officials, team executives, scouts, agents and fans began to speculate about how soon major league teams might be able to sign players in Cuba. Some even wondered whether Major League Baseball might be tempted to relocate a team like the Tampa Bay Rays, which has a feeble fan base, to Havana, where it would most likely be a sensation. Others questioned how rich the Cuban talent pool really was.

At one point Wednesday, Major League Baseball became so concerned about the reaction to Obama’s announcement that it sent a directive to its 30 teams pointing out that it remained illegal to scout players in Cuba or to sign them, because the U.S. embargo of the island remained in effect. Obama cannot lift the embargo on his own, and a Congress that will be fully controlled by Republicans starting in January is unlikely to go along with the idea, at least any time soon.

Some baseball officials thought that the changes in travel restrictions that would now take effect could at least ease the chaotic process that started in the 1990s, when the island’s top players would escape, often in boats in the middle of the night, defect to the United States and sign as free agents with major league teams.

With 11 million people, Cuba would not just be a talent source for Major League Baseball if a working relationship was established; it would also be an ideal market. Baseball has expanded its efforts in the past decade in Asia and Australia as it seeks new revenue, and Cuba would be a welcome addition to the list.

As recently as 2007, Major League Baseball was quietly putting together plans for what to do if the United States changed its relationship with Cuba. Baseball officials, working with academics and business executives and with players born in Cuba, were determining how they could take advantage of the island’s interest in the game and its talent pool if the opportunity arose.
Still, while the best Cuban players are among the most talented in the world, it is not completely clear how well-developed Cuban youth leagues are and what shape the island’s fields and equipment are in.

U.S. scouts have had a chance to watch Cuban players in recent years at the World Baseball Classic, in which teams from around the world square off in a March tournament. And, of course, they have watched defectors like Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Abreu and Aroldis Chapman succeed on the major league level - and sign increasingly lucrative contracts.

Peter C. Bjarkman, a Cuban baseball historian, noted that the Cuban government had recently adopted a policy that allowed players to join teams in Mexico and Japan. But major league clubs in the United States are a different matter.

“The Cubans want their players to now have more experience and to play professionally overseas and earn some money,” Bjarkman said. “But there is a condition: They want those players to play in the Cuban league in the winter. Otherwise they will be throwing up their hands.”

Major league teams, however, would probably not agree to allow Cuban players to spend entire winters playing baseball back home, reasoning that the injury risk would be too great.

“This is an issue that’s going to be debated in Cuba now,” Bjarkman said. “They want to utilize baseball resources to bring more money into the country, but they don’t want to sell their league to North America.”

Cubans have played in the majors as far back as the early 1900s. The Brooklyn Dodgers occasionally had spring training on the island in the 1930 and 1940s, and there was minor league baseball, too. From 1954 to 1960, the Havana Sugar Kings, a farm team of the Cincinnati Reds, played in the Class AAA International League.

Roberto González Echevarría, a professor of literature at Yale and the author of “The Pride of Havana: a History of Cuban Baseball,” noted the Cuban government had often disparaged Major League Baseball, although that could become a thing of the past.

Still, he emphasized that one of Cuba’s biggest fears was a basic one - that if Major League Baseball was allowed into the island, with all its resources, it would eventually take over the sport, as it essentially did in the Dominican Republic.

“How that can be controlled if Cuba becomes freer is very difficult to say,” he said." via Free Rep.

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Comment:  The fact that Congress "will be fully controlled by Republicans starting in January" is by no means bad news for any Obama agenda item. The only Republicans that matter are those in "leadership" and those individuals are simpatico with Democrats. In particular they're eager to help out Mr. Obama any way they can because he helped them beat the Tea Party. The NY Times is aware of all this but does its part to keep the good guy-bad guy narrative going as do the players in the Beltway.



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