September 27, 2013

Cuba says it will let athletes sign with foreign leagues

The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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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)

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."


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