Baseball integral to US-Cuba relations

36

As Major League Baseball training camps opened for Spring Training last week, one of the most promising international free agents in recent memory, 19-year-old Cuban shortstop Yoan Moncada, was in the midst of finalizing a deal with the Boston Red Sox. Given the timing of his defection from Cuba and the current thawing of diplomatic and economic relations between Cuba and the United States, Moncada’s free agency should spark debate on changes that would regulate how Cuban baseball interacts with the MLB in a new, post-embargo era.

Moncada was the most coveted Cuban free agent in a wave of recent talent that has included the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, the White Sox’s José Abreu and the Tigers’ Yoenis Cespedes. News broke Monday that Moncada has agreed to a lucrative deal with the Red Sox that will pay him a record $31.5 million signing bonus. That bonus money, which will go directly to Moncada and the baseball agents who have facilitated both his exit from Cuba and his free agency, should cause the MLB and post-embargo Cuba to re-evaluate how Cuban talent enters American baseball.

Other international leagues, like Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, have a posting system in which MLB teams must pay the Japanese club in order to negotiate with a Japanese player. In a future in which the U.S. and Cuba have normalized relations, a similar policy would for the first time compensate the relatively insular Cuban domestic league for the talent it exports to the U.S. More importantly, a more regulated exchange of talent could minimize the risk Cuban players have had to take in order to play in America.

For decades, the best Cuban players have had to defect from their homeland, often under very dangerous circumstances, in order to play baseball professionally in the United States. Moncada, who was granted a visa to travel outside of Cuba by the Cuban government, established temporary residency in Guatemala so that he could be evaluated as an MLB free agent. In years past, a player’s exit from Cuba could never be this easy, and it is perhaps a sign of the times that the Cuban government may have in part assisted his defection.

Moncada, who has been compared to a young Alex Rodriguez by scouts, will be the most scrutinized Cuban signing in years. His emergence comes at a particular moment in time when the image of Cuba from the American perspective is sure to change drastically. With young Cuban stars leading the league, baseball can be a significant part of that process.

Through normalization of economic ties with the U.S., Cuba will want to be seen differently in the eyes of its one-time adversary. Perhaps the country can use regulation of its exported baseball talent as a sort of marketing tool. Installing a kind of posting system for Cuban baseball would serve to benefit, legitimize and protect its domestic game and refurbish Cuba’s image in America through sport.