MLB, MLBPA strike deal with Cuba that allows players to be scouted, signed without defecting

Major League Baseball and the players association announced this afternoon that they’ve reached an agreement with the Cuban government to allow players from the island to be scouted and signed by the league without having to defect.

The deal facilitates Cuban players’ entry into American professional baseball while avoiding the dangerous journeys and dealings with human smugglers that have marked many of their departures.

For decades, Cuban players have risked their lives and the possibility of jail time if caught by escaping from their homeland in furtive boat trips to destinations like Mexico, Haiti or the Dominican Republic, where they could establish residency and pursue multimillion-dollar contracts.

All-Stars such as Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig and White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu made it out that way, though details of their escapes have been sketchy because of fear their relatives may face retribution back home.

In many instances, players like Cespedes and Indians outfielder Leonys Martin have been the subject of monetary demands and even extortion from some of the people who helped them defect. Puig endured a harrowing ordeal leaving Cuba via Mexico in 2012 with assistance from human smugglers who later threatened to kill him, according to a 2014 lawsuit.

At the beginning of last season, there were 17 natives of Cuba on major league rosters and disabled lists, the fourth-largest contingent of foreign-born players in the game. Abreu and Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman were picked for the All-Star Game.

That representation figures to increase with a less-hazardous journey to the majors from one of baseball’s perennial hot spots for talent.

“For years, Major League Baseball has been seeking to end the trafficking of baseball players from Cuba by criminal organizations by creating a safe and legal alternative for those players to sign with Major League Clubs," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. "We believe that this agreement accomplishes that objective and will allow the next generation of Cuban players to pursue their dream without enduring many of the hardships experienced by current and former Cuban players who have played Major League Baseball.”

During a trip to Cuba for an exhibition game by the Tampa Bay Rays in March 2016 – which coincided with President Barack Obama’s visit – Manfred expressed optimism about striking a deal for Cuban players to join major league clubs, perhaps by the end of that year.

That goal was jeopardized with the November election to the presidency of Donald Trump, a Republican with more of a hardline approach toward the island’s Communist government than his predecessor.

Any such issues appear to have been resolved, but the agreement likely will draw opposition from the exile community in South Florida, which vehemently has fought any rapprochement with the Cuban regime.

The proposal already has drawn fierce disagreement in the Cuban-American community, which has grappled in recent years with former President Obama’s historic rapprochement with the communist island and President Trump’s moves to scale back that opening.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, one of the strongest critics of Obama’s diplomatic and economic opening with Cuba, equated the MLB deal with “human trafficking” in a tweet Wednesday morning. He blasted the fees that U.S. franchises would have to pay the Cuban Baseball Federation, which is controlled by the Cuban government and would enrich the communist regime. He called such payments “shameful” and called on President Donald Trump to halt the deal.

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