With incisive analysis on an important issue, please welcome Rachel Steinberg for her BFN debut…
What was cancelled?
A deal between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Cuban Baseball Federation (CBF) that would have allowed Cuban baseball players to sign with professional teams in the United States and Canada without having to defect from Cuba. Many lauded the agreement, which took years of negotiation and was signed in December of 2018, as an important step in preventing human trafficking and other forms of exploitation faced by Cuban baseball players hoping to play for MLB and its affiliate leagues.
The agreement would have been similar to agreements MLB has with other international leagues, whereby MLB would pay a posting fee to the CBF on top of any salary or signing bonus paid to a player.
Wait, baseball has a human trafficking problem?
Right now, there is no direct, legal path for Cuban baseball players to join MLB (or its minor league) teams. The most common route to a MLB contract is through a third country like Mexico, Haiti or the Dominican Republic.
Defecting players pay smugglers to take them by boat to the third country. They then establish residency, which, at least before the latest deal was signed, was something MLB required before the players were allowed to enter the free agent market.
The boat journeys themselves are perilous, and players often leave behind wives, children and other family members without any guarantee that they will succeed in securing a contract. They leave Cuba not knowing when—or if—they will see their loved ones again. The new deal would have allowed players to travel with their families and return to Cuba during the offseason.
That’s just the beginning. Reports on what happens next include everything from alleged kidnapping to extortion by increasingly sophisticated ‘black market’ networks of smugglers and ‘agents’.
A New York Times article highlights the story of Cleveland Indians center fielder Leonys Martin, who, “in legal filings…claimed that he was held hostage by armed smugglers in Mexico and that his family was held captive in Miami while [sports agent Bart Hernandez] and his agency, Praver Shapiro Sports Management, negotiated a contract so Martin could pay a ransom for their release. (In a statement, a lawyer for Hernandez said he was innocent of the charges.)”. Hernandez was later sentenced to prison.
Reds right fielder Yasiel Puig’s journey was similarly harrowing, and White Sox first baseman José Abreu said that he is “still harassed” more than five years after his defection. He also said of the deal: “knowing that the next generation of Cuban baseball players will not endure the unimaginable fate of past Cuban players is the realization of an impossible dream for all of us”.
Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman was reportedly kept off of the 2008 Cuban Olympic team as punishment for a failed defection attempt.
And those are just the famous ones…
Exactly. While a major league contract can be life-changing for a player, many guys don’t end up making it and instead end up in limbo, their prospects growing slimmer with each passing year. Many struggle to make ends meet. They’ve just given massive sums of money to smugglers and find themselves caught in a catch-22: they need to work, but that means they can’t practice baseball. They can’t afford to practice baseball because they need to make enough to live on. Language and educational barriers can also come into play.
Does the league acknowledge there is a problem?
Absolutely, hence the deal. MLB has been reporting these stories for years. In a December 2018 statement, Commissioner Rob Manfred said: “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.”
When was the deal cancelled?
On Friday, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sent a letter to Major League Baseball stating that “payments to the Cuban Baseball Federation are not authorised because a payment to the Cuban Baseball Federation is a payment to the Cuban government”.
The Obama administration previously ruled that the CBF was independent from the Cuban government and allowed the leagues to negotiate on that basis. It’s been reported that MLB has a government memorandum from 2017 promising that the agreement would be grandfathered in under any new regulations.
Friday’s ruling came just days after the CBF released a list of 34 players eligible to sign with MLB teams under the new deal.
Why did this happen?
Without going into a complex lecture on the history of Cuba-US relations, President Trump and President Obama have notoriously held very different stances on Cuba. In 2017, Trump reinstated travel and commercial restrictions previously eased by the Obama administration.
On Sunday, United States National Security Advisor John Bolton tweeted: “Cuba wants to use baseball players as economic pawns – selling their rights to Major League Baseball. America’s national pastime should not enable the Cuban regime‘s support for Maduro in Venezuela”.
A day later, during an interview with Fox News, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked if the cancelled agreement was “more effort to pinch Cuba” to which he replied “yep”. He later said the administration was “going to do everything we can to pull [Cuba] out of Venezuela”.
MLB’s Vice President of Communications, Michael Teevan, said the league “[stands] by the goal of the agreement, which is to end the human trafficking of baseball players from Cuba”.
An MLB source said the league is “unsure of the next steps”. The BBC reported on Tuesday that MLB requested a meeting with the US government but has not received a response. The New York Times previously reported that MLB’s request was denied.
For at least 34 eligible players, the wait—and subsequent decision—could have a devastating impact on a dream that is once again teetering on the brink of impossibility.
If you’re interested in watching a great, short documentary on the journey of Cuban players to the US and Canada, I highly recommend this piece by Vice Sports. It’s a few years old, but still very much worth a watch.