Commissioner Rob Manfred says that he wants Major League Baseball teams to play exhibition games in Communist Cuba next year.
The announcement preceded an historic day in Panama City, Panama, in which President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban strongman Raul Castro, the first meeting between the leaders of the two nations in more than a half century.
“We’d like to play some exhibition games there in 2016,” Manfred told CNBC’s Squawk Box on Friday. “What we’re really doing is working closely with the federal government trying to figure out exactly how the legal framework is going to change. We want to go when it’s consistent, obviously, with federal law and federal policy. But if we could be helpful in terms of the thawing, we’d love to be part of it.”
MLB’s announcement that it seeks to go to Communist Cuba comes just weeks after NCAA President Mark Emmert confirmed that he had considered moving the 110-year-old organization from Indianapolis because of a state law protecting religious freedom.
Religious freedom, gay rights, and much else remains disrespected by the government of Cuba. Dozens of players, including current stars Aroldis Chapman of the Reds and Jose Abreu of the White Sox, escaped from the island-prison to play professional baseball in America. Would any risk return?
Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers defected to Mexico and subsequently relied on figures associated with a Mexican drug cartel to smuggle him to the United States. He endured extortion, threats, and lawsuits as a result of his ordeal.
Fidel Castro, despite his enthusiasm for baseball, outlawed professional sports in 1960. The “professional” leagues that eventually cropped up paid players an average of $17 a month as late as 2013.
The lack of opportunity in Cuba, and demand for the services of skilled athletes in the United States, leads many Cuban players to plan elaborate defections, including stopovers in a third country first in order to enter the majors as free agents instead of draftees. In 2013, the country’s Communist Party announced that it would allow certain athletes, provided they remit taxes to the Cuban government and fulfill obligations to national teams, to play abroad. Whether the attempted normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba announced by President Obama in December will result in further liberalization of the Communist dictatorship’s restrictive policy on citizens taking their baseball talents elsewhere remains to be seen.