Baseball, Cuba, and Donald Trump

On April 8, 2019, President Donald Trump shut down the deal between the Cuban government and Major League Baseball.

What deal?

MLB used an Obama-era precedent to establish a legal business channel between the Cuban Baseball Federation and Major League Baseball. Essentially, it is a legal means for Cuban baseball players to live and work in the U.S.

Why is this important?

Until the waning days of 2018, players from our communist island neighbor came to the U.S. under very different circumstances. They defected. This was acceptable to the U.S. government. Not to put too fine a point on it, defection is illegal.

Defection inherently represents a break from government rule. It also implies a certain level of activism in direct contradiction to former rulers. Snubbing communist authority, in pursuit of improving America’s pastime? Excellent, right? So, they were allowed to play.

However, by shutting down the deal, many capable players will be relegated to the old ways. Defection. Smuggling players out of Cuba and into the U.S. and other countries. We are now discussing human trafficking.

More Context

What you may not know, is that the White House’s announcement to block the deal came six days after Cuba presented a crop of players to be released for MLB consideration. On April 2, 2019, the Cuban government announced that 34 players were eligible to sign minor league contracts.

Here are the stakes for those 34 players who, suddenly, can’t play baseball in America right now. According to the Associated Press, the 34 players on the list from April 2, 2019, ranged in ages from 17–25. Under the current deal between MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation, these players will be eligible to sign minor league contracts starting at $850, or more, per month. The average minor league signing bonus is below the $10,000 mark, while others earn bonuses in excess of $1M.

Here’s the Kicker

The deal between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the Cuban Baseball Federation specifically states that each player will receive 100% of their individual signing bonus. But also that the MLB team will pay the Cuban Baseball Federation a “release fee” of up to 25% of that player’s signing bonus.

In doing so, is Major League Baseball supporting the Cuban government? Is the Cuban Baseball Federation in any way tied to the Cuban government? Can we safely assume that doing business with the Cuban Baseball Federation is definitively not the same as doing business with Cuba by proxy? These are questions the U.S. government is asking.

Do we care?

Most fans — I would say — do not.

We shouldn’t be surprised by Trump’s decision, given his vice-like grip over anything smacking of immigration.

As of this writing, there are 32 big leaguers on active rosters right now from Cuba. According to Baseball America, 45 Cubans are making their way through the minor league system. Putting that into perspective, Mexico currently has 40 players and Canada boasts 38.

There is no doubt Cuban players are tremendous assets to the game. Aroldis Chapman holds the record for fastest pitch ever thrown at an astonishing 105 mph. At least nine Cuban-born players have been on All-Star teams over the years.

Cuban players also bring a lot to the game than on-field prowess. Yasiel Puig, for example, is always…er…entertaining.

Many people in baseball believe the game needs more personality, more panache. Notwithstanding your opinion of him, Puig certainly qualifies for the title personality.

These people risked their lives to play baseball and improve their lives. It’s astonishing to me.

Just for your Gee-Wiz Collection, check out this list of active MLB players from Cuba:

This is a list of inactive, former MLB All-Stars from Cuba

  • Rolando Arrojo, P
  • Danys Báez, P
  • Liván Hernández, P
  • José Fernández, P

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