MLB makes move in Cuba

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Major League Baseball is looking to secure a safer travel pathway for aspiring Cuban players as President Obama works to restore diplomatic ties with the island nation.

Representatives from MLB have discussed with the administration and lawmakers what it would take for Cuban players to legally travel between their home country and the U.S., according to senior league officials. 

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“It is believed that in some instances, Cuban players have had to endure trying and/or unusual circumstances in order to pursue professional baseball careers,” said a senior MLB official.

“We want to ensure their safety in those cases. We also want to make it easier for clubs to conduct business with these players and their representatives as the players pursue major league careers.”

MLB has grown more active on the lobbying front since Obama’s surprise decision in December 2014 to end the decades-long diplomatic freeze with Cuba.

The foreign policy move — one of the most consequential of the president’s tenure — has put the two countries on a path toward closer relations after decades of hostility dating back to the Cold War.

Perhaps no one was more enthusiastic about Obama’s move than MLB. Cuba is a hotbed of baseball activity and has a history of producing top-tier talent.

Some of MLB’s brightest stars, including New York Mets outfielder Yoenis Céspedes, New York Yankees pitcher Aroldis Chapman and Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig are from Cuba.

But Cuban players who come to the U.S. risk their lives and often sacrifice seeing their families when they defect from Cuba, having no legal route to return.

That’s what MLB is fighting to change.

The league is pushing aggressively to lower the barriers for players, having opened its own Washington office in January led by Josh Alkin, who had previously lobbied for the league for 15 years at the firm BakerHostetler. MLB also brought on BakerHosteler alum Lucy Calautti and bolstered its outside lobbying force by hiring the Duberstein Group.

Alkin, who declined to comment for this story, has had several private meetings at the White House since the administration first started easing Cuban relations in December 2014. He met with Ricardo Zuniga, the Obama’s Latin American policy adviser who spearheaded talks with Cuba, in March 2015, and Obama himself that June, according to White House visitor logs. The logs do not specify what was discussed.

“It’s more complicated than an agreement with Cuba,” said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred in a January press conference. “The kind of agreement we would like to see would require substantial change in the regulatory framework of the United States — I know it’s hard to conceive of this, but bigger than baseball — to get the kind of agreement we would like to see.”

MLB has dipped a toe in Cuban diplomacy as well. League officials and players led a goodwill tour in Cuba last December, and the Tampa Bay Rays will play against the Cuban national team during President Obama’s historic visit to the country next week.

Policy changes made Tuesday make a tighter bond between MLB and Cuba easier to forge. Cuban citizens can now access the international banking system, earn U.S. salaries and send money home to their families. This would allow Cuban baseball players to sign directly with U.S. teams, eliminating the need to defect from the country. Because of those and other travel ban modifications, the embargo is now laden with loopholes and exemptions. 

But the path ahead for Cuban-born baseball players is still murky, since none of an American salary paid to Cuban players is allowed to go directly to the Cuban government. That makes whether Cuba would agree to an arrangement and let a player leave the country unclear.

“There’s plenty of reason on both sides to extend this, and one would often hope that sports would be a leading edge in softening political relations,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor and an expert in sports, Latin America and economic development.

“It resembles in some ways exchanges that have gone on for sometime under Obama policies, but in other ways it has a permanence that makes it somewhat different.”

Musicians, artists and dancers can often move between the U.S. and Cuba through “cultural exchange,” said Zimbalist, but noted the difference between a temporary gig and total career change.

“When Yasiel Puig came over, he didn’t come over to give a concert or two,” he said. “He came over to stay.”

- Updated at 3:11 p.m.