HAVANA – Could a new wave of Cuban baseball players be headed for the majors in America without having to defect from the communist island?
Cuba announced Friday that athletes from all sports will soon be able to sign contracts with foreign leagues, a break with a decades-old policy that held pro sports to be anathema to socialist ideals.
But American baseball fans shouldn’t celebrate just yet. The Cold War-era embargo against Cuba means it may not happen anytime soon.
If it does come to pass, it could increase – astronomically, in some cases – the amount of money Cuban baseball players can earn.
Athletes’ wages are not made public in Cuba but are believed to be somewhere around the $20 a month that most other state employees earn – a tiny fraction of the millions many U.S. big-leaguers make.
It’s the dream of many athletes to test themselves in other leagues – the big leagues, if at some point my country would allow it, said Yasmani Tomas, who is one of Cuba’s top talents, batting .345 last season with the powerhouse Havana Industriales.
Under the policy, athletes will be eligible to play abroad as long as they fulfill their commitments at home, the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported. For baseball players, that means being available for international competitions and Cuba’s November-to-April league.
President Raul Castro’s government clearly hopes the move will stem defections by athletes who are lured abroad by the possibility of lucrative contracts, a practice that saps talent from Cuba’s teams.
I think this could help stop the desertions a little bit, said Yulieski Gourriel, a talented 29-year-old third baseman who batted .314 last year for Sancti Spiritus.
Cuban defectors now in the majors include the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, who signed a seven-year, $42 million contract and Aroldis Chapman who is making just over $5 million a year with the Cincinnati Reds.
Our policy has not changed. Cuban players need to be unblocked by a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control in order to play for the MLB, said John Sullivan, spokesman for the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. In order to qualify, the players must prove that they have permanent residency outside of Cuba.
Another complication: Major League Baseball and its players union would have to decide if Cubans would be able to sign as free agents or would have to go through the international draft that baseball hopes to start in 2017.