September 27, 2013

Cuba says it will let athletes sign with foreign leagues

The Associated Press

HAVANA — Could a new wave of Cuban baseball players be headed for the major leagues without having to defect from the communist island?

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A baseball player who plays for the Cuban baseball team Industriales, winds up to throw a ball during a training session in Havana, Cuba, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013. Cuba announced Friday that its athletes will be allowed to sign contracts to compete in foreign leagues, a shift from decades of policy that held professional sports to be anathema to socialist ideals. The measure promises to increase the amount of money baseball players and others are able to earn, and seems geared toward stemming a continuing wave of defections by athletes who are lured abroad by the possibility of lucrative contracts, sapping talent from national squads. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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