MICHAEL S SCHMIDT
ULTIMATELY it is only a game, but baseball is helping to thaw relations
between Cuba and the United States.
Major League Baseball officials are quietly preparing to re-establish a
link with Havana if the US lifts its trade embargo.
Fidel Castro, 80, has had serious health problems, and his brother Raul
is Cuba's interim president, which has prompted speculation about the
country's future. Baseball officials began discussions a year and a half
ago about how to approach the possibility of normalised relations with Cuba.
A strategy is being considered for US teams to sign Cuban players and to
create an orderly system for acquiring talent from the island, according
to three baseball officials and a scholar who was briefed on the plans.
"There may not be any significant changes with our relationship with
Cuba in the near term, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't think about
these things," said Joe Garagiola Jr, the senior vice president for
baseball operations. "We are thinking about them, and that is probably
the extent of what we can say at this point."
Baseball officials are also considering moving a minor league team to
Cuba and building training academies similar to those that teams have in
the Dominican Republic, according to a report earlier this month by
Major League Baseball has stepped up efforts to expand internationally
in the past year. In March 2005, it and the players' union organised the
first World Baseball Classic, a 16-team international tournament
designed to broaden interest in the sport. Baseball began expansion
initiatives in Asia and Africa this past off-season.
But Cuba, which is 90 miles off the Florida coast, has a rich baseball
history and is considered a future source of players, fans and revenue.
The first Cuban players arrived to play professional baseball in the US
in the early 1900s. In 1946, the Washington Senators established a minor
league team in Cuba, and the Brooklyn Dodgers sporadically spent spring
training there in the 1930s and 1940s.
Castro took power in 1959, and the US imposed sanctions in 1961. Some of
the Cuban players who have since reached the majors have been defectors.
Overall, Cuba has produced 152 Major League players.
Outside the US and Canada, only Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican
Republic have produced more players. The highest number of Cuban players
was 30 in 1967, and there were nine last year.
In 1999, Baltimore Orioles played a home-and-home series with Cuba. But
baseball, in accordance with US law, prohibits clubs from scouting in
Cuba and much remains unknown about baseball on the island. It is
unclear how deep the talent pool is or how developed the youth leagues are.
Cuba has a 16-team national league that plays a 90-game season. Players
such as second baseman Yulieski Gourriel, who awed scouts at last year's
World Baseball Classic, are believed to be talented enough to play in
the majors. But the overall competition is considered to be two steps
below the majors.
Baseball officials have reached out to business executives, university
professors and Cuban-born players to learn more about the intricacies of
baseball, and life, there.
Discussions between baseball officials and the State Department could
soon take place, but a State Department spokesman said there would be no
comment on a hypothetical diplomatic situation such as US relations with
a post-Castro Cuba.
Cuban-born Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, a professor of literature at
Yale University and the author of The Pride Of Havana: A History Of
Cuban Baseball, said he was informally advising Joe Garagiola and had
the impression that baseball officials wanted to work with Cuba, but
warned it could lead to an exodus of Cuban talent.
"Joe has said they want to respect the league, but the moment that Major
League teams can sign Cuban players, they are all going to want to
leave," Echevarria said. "Would the players rather play in an
impoverished country or play minor league baseball in America in the
hopes of making it to the majors?"