'Baseball diplomacy': US and Cuba play ball at last

After decades of distrust, the recent thaw between Havana and Washington has raised hopes of increased sporting engagement

Today, 25-year-old Yasiel Puig is paid a seven-figure salary from one of the richest teams in Major League Baseball (MLB). Controversial off the field, his talent on it is undeniable: he set batting records in his first season for the LA Dodgers in 2013. A year before that, he was a near-penniless migrant at the mercy of people-smugglers from a ruthless Mexican cartel.

Puig grew up in rural Cuba, where baseball is the national pastime but is strictly amateur, and the tale of his flight to the US reads like an airport thriller. He had already attempted to defect four times before he was finally spirited by speedboat to a motel on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula in 2012,  by traffickers affiliated with Los Zetas, the brutal crime organisation.

The traffickers held him captive as they argued over money with Puig’s contact in Florida, who eventually sent men to free him at gunpoint. In Cuba, he had earned $17 a month. When he reached the US, he signed a $42m (£29m) deal with the Dodgers, a record for a Cuban defector. Since then, court records suggest, he has paid more than $1.3m to four of the men who facilitated his escape. A fifth – allegedly the boss of the smuggling operation – was shot dead in Cancun several months later. 

Thanks to American baseball rules and the strict terms of the US trade embargo, Cubans looking to sign a lucrative deal with a Major League team must first establish residency in a third country, such as Mexico. For that reason Puig’s is a journey repeated by many of his countrymen, keen to play in the US. 

Baseball consultant Joe Kehoskie, the first non-Cuban US agent to sign Cuban defectors, said that during the 1990s, most slipped away while playing abroad for their national team. “But 10 or 12 years ago, they switched to defecting with smugglers,” Mr Kehoskie said. “I’d guess that nine out of 10 Cuban players who defected in the past decade went through a situation very similar to Puig’s.”

Now, with relations between Cuba and the US finally beginning to thaw after more than five decades of distrust, the MLB has reportedly proposed a deal to both governments that would allow Cuban players to join American teams legally.

Peter Bjarkman, author of the forthcoming book Cuba’s Baseball Defectors, said stories like Puig’s represented a “black eye” for the sport. “Even though there’s no evidence that anybody in Major League Baseball has been directly involved in smuggling players off the island... they clearly have an embarrassing situation on their hands,” he said. “If you buy cocaine that you know was smuggled into the US by the cartels, then you’re part of the problem. [MLB] would like legal immigration out of Cuba so they don’t get more bad press.”

In 2014, US President Barack Obama announced the re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba for the first time since 1961. Embassies have since re-opened in Havana and Washington, and US airlines are expected to begin regular services to Cuba this year. Officials now believe “baseball diplomacy” could be the key that unlocks the closed door of US-Cuban cultural relations.

Mr Obama plans to visit Cuba later this month, the first sitting US president to do so in 88 years. During his stay he will attend a rare exhibition game between the Cuban national squad and the Tampa Bay Rays. MLB has reportedly spent millions of dollars to overhaul the neglected Havana stadium where the game is due to played.

In Cuba the sport is a state concern, overseen by the government-run Cuban Baseball Federation – whose vice president is Antonio Castro, son of the former President, Fidel Castro. The Cuban national team recently announced that it would play several games later this year in a lesser baseball league, the Can-Am, whose teams compete in Canada and the US.

Mr Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes played down the prospects of an imminent deal between the two governments and their sporting bodies, telling The Washington Post: “This trip is about marking a historic milestone with the Cuban people, and going to a game that represents our shared pastime is a way for the President to share this moment with them. He’s pleased that MLB is engaging the Cuban people and hopes it’s just one more step in normalising relations.”

Both the US and Cuba present obstacles to any potential agreement over defecting players. The US embargo remains in place, and a Republican Congress is unlikely to consider scrapping it, at least until after Mr Obama leaves office. The Castro government, meanwhile, has made clear that it wishes to be compensated for players it has cultivated in what is effectively an amateur game, only for them to move to MLB.

“The Cubans are trying to maintain their independent baseball system,” Mr Bjarkman said. “The national team and its dominance of international amateur level baseball has been an extremely important propaganda tool for the Cuban government, and a source of pride for the people. They’re not going to give up the revolution overnight and throw their arms open to US corporations like Major League Baseball... There’s a lot of false optimism here about an immediate change.”

Cuban players first began defecting to the US in significant numbers in the 1990s. “Back then it was mostly older players who’d given their best years to Castro and saw American baseball as a retirement plan,” Mr Kehoskie said. “About 10 years ago, younger players started leaving, and suddenly MLB was getting the best 19- and 22-year-olds, who were major league-ready. In the early 2000s it was uncommon for a Cuban defector to sign a seven-figure deal.  The dollar amounts now are staggering.”

Today there are around 30 Cuban-born players in MLB teams, and more than 100 aspiring prospects have defected – most to the US – in the 14 months since Mr Obama announced renewed ties with Cuba. Two of the island nation’s best players, brothers Yulieski and Lourdes Gurriel, fled for America last month, after a tournament in the Dominican Republic.

Yet it is another measure of improved relations between the two countries that, in December, an MLB delegation of top players and officials made what was only the League’s second official trip to Havana since the  1959 revolution. Among the handful of players permitted to join that three-day visit was Yasiel Puig.

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