Sunday, December 21, 2014

Toward a Third Cuban Wave

The implications for major league baseball of the US change in policy direction signaled by President Obama's decision to establish diplomatic relations and to eliminate or reduce many restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba include the likelihood of a "third wave" of Cuban players coming to the United States--although how soon remains to be seen--as well as the possibility of major league teams establishing a presence in the still-Communist-but-interested-in-promoting foreign investment Caribbean island nation. Should Cuba become open for major league business, however, the realistic opportunities might very well be tempered by potentially significant uncertainties.

Toward a Third Cuban Wave

Before the Castro Revolution in 1959, Cuba was at the leading edge of the globalization of major league baseball. As noted in a previous post on April 14, "The First Cuban Wave" (see link at the end of this article), integration proved to be the catalyst for an unprecedented influx of players from Cuba in the 1950s and 1960s, many of them black Latinos, all of whom had left Cuba in hopes of a big league career before or in the first chaotic year or two after Fidel Castro's seizure of power in 1959. The first wave of Cuban players making it big in the major leagues was effectively over by the mid-1960s as a result of Castro's crackdown on political liberties, which included severe travel restrictions to make it difficult if not generally impossible for Cubans to flee his repressive regime, but not before outstanding players like Minnie Minoso, Camilo Pascual, Tony Oliva, Tony Perez, Bert Campaneris, Mike Cuellar and Luis Tiant had left Cuba to play ball in the United States.

The next generation of Cuban-born players in the major leagues, including Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro, were mostly raised in the United States after arriving as children on the so-called "freedom flights" from the mid-1960s to early-1970s that were organized by the US and tolerated by Castro as a way to diffuse dissent in Cuba. Love of the game was perhaps in their Cuban genetic makeup, but they learned the game on American diamonds.

Meanwhile, in the face of the US embargo, the excellence of its baseball league became a major foundation of Cuba's revolutionary identity. Cuba continued to impress the  baseball world in international tournaments and many players on its national team were considered likely capable of playing in the major leagues, lack of opportunity notwithstanding.

Motivated by the challenge, the money and a desire to choose their own destiny and not be constrained by a repressive regime, a "second Cuban wave" to the major leagues, characterized by top-rated players from Cuba's national team taking significant risks to defect from their home, took off in the mid-1990s and continues to this day. Pitchers Livan Hernandez (signed by the Marlins in 1996) and Orlando Hernandez (signed by the Yankees in 1998) were among the first prominent defectors. Although players from the Dominican Republic have dominated the trend, defecting Cuban players have contributed to the accelerating pace of globalization in major league baseball in the last 25 years.

The sea change in policy towards Cuba that the President announced makes it likely there will soon be a third wave of Cuban players coming legitimately to the United States, without having to defect. In anticipation of this development, Major League Baseball institutionally was farsighted enough that eight years ago MLB officials were considering options should US sanctions against Cuba be lifted. Among the issues addressed were the need for a systematic process for signing Cuban players, the possibility of teams establishing baseball academies in Cuba like those they have in the Dominican Republic, and perhaps even the establishment of a minor league team there. (An article in The New York Times on April 26, 2007 reported on this initiative: see http://www.nyti

No doubt there are Cuban players who would be among the best in the major leagues if given the opportunity, like recent defectors Yasiel Puig and 2014 AL Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu. But notwithstanding the Cuban national team's international reputation, the overwhelming majority of players in the Cuban league are probably not close to even marginal major league players in their level of talent and development. Cuba failed to reach the final tournament in the last two World Baseball Classics in 2009 and 2013. The Times article cited above reported that major league scouts in 2007 assessed the overall level of competition in the Cuban league to approximate that of Double-A minor league ball in the US.

The current regime appears amenable to allowing Cubans to play in the United States, preferably in an arrangement where the regime would be allowed to profit from the major league contracts given to Cuban players, either by directly brokering deals through government agents or by a posting system similar to MLB's relationship with the Japanese leagues. (See the December 14 article in Baseball America, "How Will MLB Handle Big Changes in Cuba," Such an arrangement could be problematic from the US perspective, however, especially if the current regime outlast the lives of Fidel and brother Raul (who replaced the ailing Fidel as top dog in 2006).

While President Obama has the executive authority to remove or ease many restrictions on interactions with Cuba by US-based persons and businesses, Congressional action to roll back legislated sanctions is likely to be required before meaningful commercial activity is possible. Pending such action--a process likely to be bedeviled by political considerations, specifically partisan push back and bipartisan concerns about human rights, democratization and respect for private business interests--the US trade embargo remains in effect, almost certainly precluding major league baseball from moving quickly, perhaps not even any time soon, to take advantage of the thaw in political relations.

As for the possibility of Cuba becoming a market for major league baseball (in addition to being a new talent pool for major league teams), establishing a minor league franchise in Cuba could ultimately set the stage for a scenario where a financially-struggling franchise might play part of its schedule in Havana, similar to when the Expos played 22 games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in their last two years in Montreal before becoming the Washington Nationals. While that would certainly test whether Cuba could eventually support a major league team, either such development would require that Cuba after the Castros be politically stable.

The legacy of the Cuban Revolution, however, and the political and economic prerogatives that Cuban leaders have come to enjoy from more than half-a-century of repressive Communist rule, not to mention the mixed record of many former Soviet Bloc countries since the collapse of the USSR, suggests a strong possibility that the transition to a post-Castro Cuba might be a time of turmoil and trouble.

Political instability and an unstable business environment would not be conducive to a major league presence--including baseball academies--in Cuba. In that case, there would still be a third wave of Cuban players leaving Cuba in hopes of a big league career, although they would more likely be calculating that their best bet was to escape their country's turmoil rather than be part of an orderly systematic approach engineered by major league baseball to manage the signing of Cuban players.

The following is the link to the "First Cuban Wave" article on Baseball Historical Insight on April 14, 2014:

No comments:

Post a Comment