Cuba might lift restrictions, let baseball players sign abroad

After years of rising defections, Cuba might let its players sign with foreign leagues — except Major League Baseball, the Miami Herald reports.

Something is moving silently within Cuban baseball that, if it comes to pass, would end five decades of imposed tradition and push Cuban players into what was once derided as “the slave game.”

The Cuban Federation of Baseball is considering a proposal that would permit Cuban players to join professional leagues in other countries, a source close to the federation told El Nuevo Herald.

Federation vice president Antonio Castro, son of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, floated the proposal to members of the Cuban delegation during the 17th International Cup in Taipei, Taiwan, according to the source.

“Many rumors had been heard about Cuba looking for some sort of deal with professional circuits,” said Carlos Pérez, president of Miami Sports Consulting, an agency that represents several Caribbean players. “But we’d have to wait and see if this will work out or if it’s just another idea dead on arrival.”

The initiative would allow Cuban players to join professional leagues and keep 60 percent of their wages, while the government collects the remaining 40 percent, the sources said.

The countries where Cubans would be permitted to play are: Taipei, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Italy.

Players would not be allowed to sign with Major League Baseball clubs because of the United States trade embargo on Cuba.

Antonio Castro’s proposal was submitted to his father, Fidel, and his uncle, President Raúl Castro, the sources said. It has the support of the national federation, although figures such as former star shortstop Germán Mesa are said to oppose it.

“Should this be put into practice, it would generate a very interesting panorama,” said attorney Jaime Torres, who represents players José Contreras of the Phillies and Alexei Ramírez of the White Sox. “Let’s say a kid goes to Mexico to play. There, he could look at Major League Baseball and compare. Nobody could prevent him from playing in the United States, if he so wished.”


If approved, the proposal would doubtlessly make it easy for players to go abroad — most of them with years of experience — and pursue their baseball dreams.

Cuba might have no alternative but to give a green light to the project. As has happened with the timid moves in the economic sector, immobility could be a worse choice.

Recently, former player Victor Mesa recommended that the government allow players to sign contracts with foreign teams to slow down defections, which have risen alarmingly in recent years.

“Other countries do it, so why can’t we? In the end, they’re stealing our players, even those in the minor leagues,” Mesa said. “I favor they be inserted into foreign teams after eight years of playing in our national series. And through our channels, too, not as free agents.”

Mesa’s comments were made public shortly after El Nuevo Herald announced the defection of Yasiel Balaguer, a 17-year-old center fielder who is looking to settle in a third country before signing with a major-league team.

After pitcher René Arocha escaped the island in 1991, defections by baseball players rose from a trickle to a flood. In 2009 alone, 35 players fled the country. This year, Cuba’s favorite pastime lost several figures, among them Leonys Martín, an experienced player on the national team.

Several sources say that more than 350 players have left the island over the past several years. Currently, there were about 20 Cubans on major-league rosters.


The total value of the contracts signed between 2009 and 2010 by Cuban players in the majors exceeds $70 million.

In the late 1990s, Cuba considered the idea of allowing veteran players to participate in foreign leagues. Several played in semiprofessional leagues in Asia and Europe, among them the legendary Omar Linares, who played professionally in the twilight of his career in Japan.

The baseball authorities “have a problem with so much talent that has gotten away from them, so they want to stay on the good side of both God and the Devil,” Pérez said.

“The Cuban government wants to be both owner and agent, to satisfy the players and simultaneously to keep control over them. It will profit, because 40 percent of a contract is an abusive share. We’ll wait and see what happens.”

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