HAVANA — A group of Cuban-born baseball stars once disdained by the island’s government for defecting to the United States taught their craft to some of the island’s youngest players on Wednesday as part of a triumphant return to Cuba.
Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena and first baseman Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox were among those who ran 10- and 11-year-old Cuban players through a three-hour skills camp on the second day of a three-day mission meant to warm relations between Major League Baseball and Cuba.
Joined by pitcher Pedro Luis Lazo and other Cuban baseball stars who’ve stayed on the island, the major-league stars divided the youths into five groups and ran them through calisthenics and batting, pitching and catching drills and offered them tips and advice.
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"We’re going to give our best on this visit and we appreciate the opportunity we’ve been given," said Yasiel Puig, who left Cuba on a smuggler’s fast-boat in 2012. "Everything else we leave to God and destiny."
The official return of baseball defectors earning millions in the major leagues was a landmark in the new relationship and a dramatic manifestation of Cuba’s shifting attitude toward the hundreds of players who have abandoned the country that trained them.
Also during the trip, Major League Baseball Players Association executives planned to talk business with their Cuban counterparts, saying they were optimistic about sealing a deal by early next year for the Tampa Bay Rays to play two spring training games in Cuba. They also hope to make progress in one day creating a legal route for Cuban players to make their way to the major leagues.
"There’s some hurdles to negotiate, there’s no question, and hopefully this trip of good will make the conversations work better," said Major League Baseball chief baseball officer Joe Torre.
Cuban television avoids games featuring defectors but fans watch their idols’ performances on pirated recordings distributed on computer USB drives. Most experts agree that the future does not look bright without a solution to the problem of talent fleeing the country. But fans who gathered to see the Cuban baseball stars said their return to the island filled them with optimism.
U.S. teams played spring training games in Cuba before Castro’s revolution but none appeared here from March 1959 until the Baltimore Orioles faced Cuba’s national team in Havana in March 1999. MLB has not returned since.
Under Castro, a passionate baseball fan who saw sports as an expression of national glory, defectors were banished from official memory, never mentioned on Cuban television even as they made headlines on U.S. sports pages.
Castro’s brother and successor, President Raul Castro, has eased the treatment of players who leave as part of a broader easing of social controls. That included the 2013 removal of a required exit permit for all Cubans, except those considered essential to the country.
Some major-league players have since been allowed back on low-key trips to see family. A few others, like star infielder Yoan Moncada, have received permission from Cuban authorities to depart legally to start careers in the United States. Moncada won a $31.5 million signing bonus with the Boston Red Sox in March.
Cuba also has been allowing some stars to legally play in countries such as Japan and Mexico during the offseason. Similar policies for the major leagues would be far more difficult due to the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and Cuban fears that broad legalization of departures to the U.S. would make the talent drain even worse.