What shift in U.S.-Cuba relations means for baseball

Considering the full scope of US-Cuba relations — with countless lives altered and lost on account of a half-century stalemate — it seems trivial to discuss baseball in light of Wednesday’s historic events.

Yet, the impact of the political shift on Major League Baseball is — and should be — part of the conversation. After all, President Obama mentioned the athletic contributions of Cuban exiles early in Wednesday’s address. And after more than 50 years of mutual isolation, baseball is perhaps the greatest cultural touchstone between the countries — and a natural venue for what could be the start of radical change.

The key words there are could be, because — on many levels — it’s difficult to say precisely how MLB’s relationship with Cuba is different today than it was yesterday. But for a variety of reasons, Wednesday’s developments should expand the rapidly growing influence of Cuban players on Major League Baseball.

Two hours after the president began his remarks, the commissioner’s office released a statement saying MLB “will continue to track this significant issue” and inform clubs about how the White House announcement “may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba.”

It’s important to note that even as the nations announced a move toward “full diplomatic relations,” the US economic embargo remains in legislative effect. Given that Republicans traditionally have supported the embargo and are about to control both houses of Congress, the president’s new policy won’t necessarily bring about the end of the embargo. 

Still, Wednesday’s announcement increases the chances for a new working agreement among the respective federal governments, MLB and Cuba’s baseball federation. That could mean any of the following:

AROUND THE HORN

That’s the first tier of reasonable change, which could occur through a series of exemptions even if the embargo remains in place. It’s harder to envision all 30 major-league teams opening up academies in Cuba in the very near future, as they have in the Dominican Republic.

“I don’t think that will happen,” Cuban baseball expert Peter Bjarkman told FOX Sports, when asked about the possibility of MLB team academies on the island. “Normalizing relations means things like travel restrictions. I don’t see Cuba giving up its economic system or opening the door to exploitation by foreign corporations. It (the Cuban government) will still want 60 percent ownership on foreign (corporations) and complete control over its own athletes.

“The near (term) future baseball relationships will be with Japan. I don’t think Cuba is ready to hand over its baseball to MLB.”

Even if the Cuban government allowed US sports franchises that level of autonomy, MLB clubs would want to see if an international draft is instituted under the next collective bargaining agreement before making infrastructure investments. The notion of an MLB-affiliated franchise in Cuba, which last occurred in 1960 with the Havana Sugar Kings of the Triple-A International League, is undoubtedly many years and political concessions away … but suddenly plausible, on a momentous day for the nation and national pastime.

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