HAVANA — Could a new wave of Cuban baseball players be headed for the major leagues without having to defect from the communist island?
Cuba announced Friday that athletes from all sports will soon be able to sign contracts with foreign leagues, a break with a decades-old policy that held pro sports to be anathema to socialist ideals.
It’s a step toward the day when the road from Havana to Yankee Stadium might mean simply hopping on a plane rather than attempting a perilous sea crossing or sneaking out of a hotel at midnight in a strange land.
But American baseball fans shouldn’t throw their Dodgers or Rockies caps in the air in celebration just yet. The Cold War-era embargo against Cuba means it may not happen anytime soon.
If it does come to pass, it could increase — astronomically, in some cases — the amount of money Cuban baseball players can earn.
Athletes’ wages are not made public in Cuba but are believed to be somewhere around the $20 a month that most other state employees earn — a tiny fraction of the millions many U.S. big leaguers make.
“It’s the dream of many athletes to test themselves in other leagues — the big leagues, if at some point my country would allow it,” said Yasmani Tomas, who is one of Cuba’s top talents, batting .345 last season with the powerhouse Havana Industriales.
Under the new policy, athletes will be eligible to play abroad as long as they fulfill their commitments at home, the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported. For baseball players, that means being available for international competitions as well as Cuba’s November-to-April league.
“We have seen the press reports. This is an internal Cuban matter,” Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. “Generally speaking, the United States welcomes any reforms that allow Cubans to depart from and return to their country.”
Major League Baseball said the impact of Friday’s announcement can’t be predicted.
“Given that we do not have any details of this change in policy, it would be premature for us to speculate what effect it may have,” the commissioner’s office said in a statement. “There are no provisions in the major league rules or bylaws that make it more difficult for Cuban ballplayers to play Major League Baseball, but MLB and its clubs have and will continue to act in accordance with the laws and policies of the United States government.”
President Raul Castro’s government hopes the move will stem defections by athletes who are lured abroad by the possibility of lucrative contracts, a practice that saps talent from Cuba’s teams.
“I think this could help stop the desertions a little bit,” said Yulieski Gourriel, a talented 29-year-old third baseman who batted .314 last year for Sancti Spiritus.
“I don’t even want to talk about how much I’ve been offered, because every time we leave the country, there are these offers. I’ve never paid attention because I’ve always said I’m not interested.”
A number of his countrymen, however, are interested.
Cuban defectors now in the major leagues include outfielder Yasiel Puig, who signed a $42 million, seven-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in July 2012 and had a sensational rookie season, helping Los Angeles win its division. Hard-throwing reliever Aroldis Chapman signed a $30.25 million, six-year deal with Cincinnati before the 2010 season.
If the policy change comes to pass, “it’s good for Cuba, for everybody, for the players — more people in the big leagues, more experience for international tournaments,” said Milwaukee Brewers infielder Yuniesky Betancourt, a Cuban defector who left his homeland aboard a speedboat in 2003.
Texas Rangers outfielder Leoyns Martin was surprised Friday when told about the news
“Really? Oh my gosh,” said Martin, wearing his Cuba Baseball jacket from the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Martin defected after playing for Cuba’s national team in a 2010 tournament in Japan.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Martin said. “That’s a long history in my life.”
Professional sports were essentially done away with under Fidel Castro in 1961, two years after the Cuban revolution, and athletes became state employees just like factory workers and farmhands.
Sport as private enterprise was deemed incompatible with the Marxist society Castro intended to create. In 2005, he railed against the “parasites that feed off the athlete’s hard work” in professional sports.
Friday’s announcement is part of a trend toward relaxing that stance under Castro’s brother, who became president in 2006.
Earlier this year, Cuba ended a five-decade ban on professional boxing, joining an international semipro league where fighters compete for sponsored teams and earn $1,000 to $3,000 a month.
Still, the biggest obstacle to, say, Tomas’ likeness showing up on a bobblehead doll in a major league park someday may lie not in Cuba, but in the U.S.
Granma reported that Cuban athletes will have to pay taxes on any earnings from foreign clubs, an apparent conflict with the 51-year-old American embargo that outlaws nearly all U.S. transactions with Cuba unless they are specifically licensed by Washington.
The economic restrictions were imposed after Cuba nationalized American businesses and aligned itself with the Soviet Union. They have been kept in place to try to pressure the authoritarian country to allow its people more freedom.
“Our policy has not changed. Cuban players need to be unblocked by a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control in order to play for the MLB,” said John Sullivan, spokesman for the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. “In order to qualify, the players must prove that they have permanent residency outside of Cuba.”
Cuban players who defect establish residency in another country and become free agents, eligible for any major league organization to sign. While residents of the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada are the only ones currently subject to baseball’s amateur draft, MLB management hopes to start an international draft in the next labor contract, which would start in 2017.
In the interim, MLB and the union last year started a system of restraints on signing bonuses for international players.
“The Basic Agreement is unclear as to whether they’d be subject to the international signing limits,” said Jay Reisinger, an agent and lawyer for several major leaguers.
Even if Cubans have trouble playing in the U.S., they might still be able to take the field in Mexico, Japan, Venezuela or other countries during their offseason, something that has happened in a few instances.
Also Friday, Granma announced raises for island athletes, including bonuses for individual and team achievement. For example, in baseball, league leaders in hitting and other categories will get an extra $41. The team that wins the title will split $2,700.
That’s small change by big-league standards, but sizeable in Cuba.
“The pay raise is going to be a big help. It was time,” Tomas said. “I think if we’d done it even earlier, some athletes would not have left.”