What we had asked for so much – and many even prayed – took final shape on 19 December. The Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB) published the expected results of the Major League Baseball Agreement (MLB), with the consent of the MLB Players Association (MLBPA). Thanks to this, Cuban fcB-associated players will be able to be hired by any of the thirty MLB teams in the United States without losing their residency in Cuba, nor their link to national baseball.
Generally speaking, the clauses are similar to those established by MLB with other foreign leagues, such as Japan’s Professional Baseball (NPB), Korean (KBO) and Chinese Taipei Professional (CPBL).
Let’s go back in time
If we delve into the past of the process, we cannot forget that in January 1962, the Revolutionary Government headed by Fidel Castro, banned professional sport on the island. In this way, he began the First National Baseball Series, in which the triumph of “the free ball over the slave ball” was taken for example. A year and a half later, the “Regulation for the Control of Cuban Assets” entered into force, where means of which, among other clauses, no pelotero residing in Cuba could collect a salary in the MLB.
After an almost total silence and with hardly any noticeable in Cuba of what happened on the American ball, in April 1984, Bárbaro Garbey, who had left the port of Mariel in 1980, aroused the interest of the fans by becoming the first goalkeeper hired by MLB, after playing in the National Series. A little later, in 1993, pitcher René Arocha made his MLB debut with the St. Louis Cardinals, after becoming, in 1991, the first player to leave a national team.
Other important events later came: Liván Hernandez’s triumph with the Florida Marlins in the 1997 World Series; his brother Orlando’s four rings with the New York Yankees; and the top of a Cuban national team against the Baltimore Orioles, on March 28, in Latin America, and on April 3, at Camden Yard.
During the process, Cuban platoons arrived in avalanche in the United States, sometimes putting their lives in danger, sometimes by sea crossing and sometimes by falling into the hands of gangs of people smugglers. In fact, several are convicted of illegal human trafficking, including some known as Gus Dominguez, Eliezer Lazo and Gilberto Suarez. Eventually, many players were hired as “free agents” after acquiring citizenship from another country.
Little is said about the Puerto Rican José Serrano, Democratic representative for New York, who in 2005 presented to Congress the “Baseball Diplomacy Act”, a proposal to bypass the restrictions of the economic embargo and facilitate the hiring of Cuban players, which was evidently not considered by that instance. The Boricua did not cease his efforts and on January 4, 2013, at Session 113 of the United States House of Representatives, he re-presented the project, again without success.
About four years ago, in February 2015, MLB Executive Vice President for Legal Affairs Dan Halem sent a memorandum to the thirty teams. In it, he explained the new regulations established to sign Cuban prospects, who had to file an affidavit. This included the following text: “By this means I declare that I have assumed permanent residence outside Cuba. Moreover, by this means I declare that I do not intend to return to Cuba, nor will I be allowed to return. I hereby declare that I am not an official of the Government of Cuba … and I am not a member of the Communist Party of Cuba.”
Previously, Cuban players had to obtain a license from the Foreign Assets Office (OFAC) before signing with a major league team or lying in a third country to be able to negotiate as “free agents” and not be subject to the draft, a system by which amateurs, including well-known college players, reach professionals.
However, a short time later, in June, MLB applied to OFAC for a license to authorize the hiring of Cuban players without violating the laws of the embargo. At this point, Halem acknowledged to the press that the priority was to give the island’s stonemasons a legal and safe path, as there was a priority of the US government to end human trafficking.
In December of the same year, there was one fact that I consider definitive: the MLB’s goodwill visit to Cuba. Word New witnessed the event, which brought to our country Joe Torre, Director of Sports Operations of the organization, the aforementioned Dan Halem, Tony Clark, Executive Vice President of the Players Guild, Dave Winfield, Official Consultant.
Also came several platoons, including the Cubans José Dariel Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Alexeis Ramírez and Brayan Peña[. They were accompanied by American Clayton Kershaw, Dominican Nelson Cruz, Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera and Miami-born Cuban parents John Jay. The visit also included the conduct of sports clinics in Havana and Matanzas, as well as a meeting with Caritas Cuba in the church of San Juan de Letrán.
Later, in March 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department opened a small gap involving athletes. A document containing a number of measures of economic rapprochement and support for the business sector also included that “Cuban citizens in the United States who have non-immigrant status or who are pending another non-immigrant travel authorization earn a salary or compensation, in compliance with the terms of the particular visa , provided that your recipient is not subject to any special tax valuation in Cuba.”
Then came the friendly match between a Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays, won by the visiting cast with a 4-1 slate. The clash was played at the Latin American Stadium and was attended, during part of the game, by then-US President Barack Obama, Cuban representative Raúl Castro and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. These and other steps, perhaps less well known, were those that led to the recent Agreement.
The Agreement: things to consider
First, the agreement will allow our players, affiliated with the Cuban Baseball Federation, to be hired not only in the United States, but also in Canada, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Mexico. Those who are twenty-five years old and six National Series may be declared “free agents” and sign without restrictions. Meanwhile, those who do not qualify but have turned eighteen will be able to obtain a contract by entering the draft.
Players explored in Cuba by international headhunters may be represented by an agent or lawyer to sign a contract and will travel to any of the countries to perform services in MLB clubs, in accordance with a standard work visa. They also have the right to return to Cuba and participate in national or international tournaments, out of season.
MLB will pay the Cuban Baseball Federation official fees for hiring players. This amount is independent of the salary that the pelotero will receive for his contract, which will arrive directly from the Club that hires him. The Agreement, signed on 19 December, will expire on 31 October 2021, although it may be extended by mutual desire.
At the moment, many wonder if hairdressers playing in the United States such as José Abreu, Aroldis Chapman, José Iglesias, Yuliesky Gourriel or Yasel Puig[ can be chosen to join the national team. It seems that, at the moment, this is impossible, as they are not part of the Cuban Baseball Federation. Either way, a door has been opened and anything could happen overnight.
There is a reality: with the new measure many of the Cuban players abroad who have not signed because they have not been able to legalize their immigration status will be able to return to the island, participate in the National Series and be hired by MLB clubs.
As a result of the above, our National Championship will raise its level, as also now those who aspire to be hired have to give themselves up to the maximum from training. Otherwise, they will not be able to catch the attention of talent scouts or scouts, those who for years were criticized, calling them almost mobsters.
Another important point is that now making the Cuba team, understand also leaving the island, buying things for the family and doing some other relationship, will not be the only incentive for Cuban players.
Each boy will be able to get to where his talent and effort allow him. Some, to major leagues, others will be at various levels such as Triple-A or Caribbean Professional Leagues, but everyone will have the chance without risking their lives.
A lot of things will change. I imagine that we will be able to watch live games on national television more often, we will normally be visited by scouts, and New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, etc…, will no longer look so alien. In short, situations change and this FCB and MLB Agreement seems to be for the best. Welcome back! Ω