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MLB Likely to Play Exhibition Game in Cuba

MLB Likely to Play Exhibition Game in Cuba

Posted by Juan Gavasa on March 21, 2015

Major League Baseball is likely to play an exhibition game in Cuba in early 2016, commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

The league has been in talks with the U.S. government about returning to the baseball-rich island for the first time since 1999, as the two countries work to reestablish relations, but previously had no timetable for doing so.

Such a game would be the first played by a major North American professional sports league in Cuba since the U.S. announced in December that it would seek to reestablish diplomatic ties it severed in 1961. The New York Cosmos, a team in the second-tier North American Soccer League, are scheduled to play the Cuban national soccer team in Havana on June 2.

“To the extent that we can play a role in helping the United States government effectuate a change in policy, that we’re following their lead and we’re acting in a way that’s consistent with what they want us to do, that’s an honor for us,” Manfred said.

Manfred said the feedback MLB has received from U.S. government officials recently makes him confident there will be a spring-training game in Cuba in 2016. It remains unclear whether there will be just one or multiple games.

“The combination of their input and where we are in our calendar for 2015 makes the most likely point in time to be spring training of 2016,” he said. “It’s not a three-day exercise to play a meaningful exhibition game in Cuba. You need a little lead time to get that done, to put everything together, to be able to broadcast it in the way that it deserves.”

An exhibition game in Cuba would represent the first step toward what MLB hopes will be an expanded presence there. A baseball hotbed for decades, the island has been an increasingly rich source of talent for the league in recent years, despite the inability of MLB scouts to operate there.

Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig and Chicago White Sox slugger Jose Abreu highlighted a group of 25 Cuban-born players to appear in the majors last season, the most since 1970, according to Stats LLC.

“It’s a great source of talent,” Manfred said. “We’ve seen the level of interest that quality Cuban players have generated among major-league clubs. And secondly, Cuba is a country where baseball is part of the culture, like it is here in the United States, and we love markets like that.”

Under the terms of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, players must first establish residency in a third country before signing with an MLB team. As a result, many players have faced a harrowing journey from Cuba to the majors.

In December, a Florida man pleaded guilty in federal court to taking part in a conspiracy to smuggle Puig out of Cuba in 2012 in exchange for a cut of his $42 million contract with the Dodgers.

Though Congress has so far stopped short of trying to lift the embargo, Manfred said he doesn’t think that would be necessary to ease the flow of talent from Cuba to MLB. “I’m guessing, because I don’t have enough information, but I think there will be an effort to regularize the flow of baseball talent, short of there being a complete lifting of the embargo,” he said.

The economic model under which that talent would begin to flow under any new arrangement is unclear. The means by which international players enter MLB varies by country.

Japanese players who aren't yet eligible for free agency in their league are subject to a posting system in which MLB teams pay Japanese teams up to $20 million for the right to negotiate a contract with the player. By contrast, in the Dominican Republic, teams can sign hordes of players as amateurs at relatively low costs and develop them at team-run academies on the island.

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