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The Cuba/USA Normalization And Baseball

What could the resumption of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba mean for baseball's future in both countries?

A Cuban flag on display at Petco Park in San Diego during the 2009 World Baseball Classic
A Cuban flag on display at Petco Park in San Diego during the 2009 World Baseball Classic
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

A little history, if you don't mind, before diving into the meat of this topic.

During the 1950s, a significant number of baseball players left Cuba to play baseball in the United States. This was happening for the same reason players leave the Dominican Republic today -- they were all hoping for a better life. One of the biggest factors back then was the breaking of the color barrier, as many black Cubans could not have been in the big leagues before 1947.

Tony Perez (the only Hall of Famer born in Cuba), Jose Cardenal, Minnie Minoso (the first black Cuban in MLB), Tony Taylor (who played three years for the Cubs), Tony Oliva, Camilo Pascual, Tony Gonzalez, Diego Segui and Bert Campaneris were just some of the significant players who came to MLB from Cuba in that era. Oliva, Cardenal and Campaneris were among the last group signed in 1960-61 before the economic embargo was placed on Cuba in 1961. That embargo also forced Triple-A baseball out of Cuba; the Havana Sugar Kings were a Triple-A team in the International League from 1954 through 1960, when baseball was pressured to leave Cuba. (Footnote: The Sugar Kings wound up in Jersey City; the franchise was eventually sold and moved to Jacksonville and later to the Tidewater area in Virginia. It still exists as the Norfolk Tides.)

With the announcement Wednesday that the United States and Cuba would be normalizing diplomatic relations, what could this mean for the future of Cuban players playing in Major League Baseball?

Over the last couple of decades, a number of players have left Cuba to play in the United States. The most notable of those currently playing in MLB are Yasiel Puig, Jose Fernandez, Yoenis Cespedes, Yasmani Grandal, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Abreu, Rusney Castillo and the Cubs' own Jorge Soler, with more rumored heading toward MLB including the still-unsigned 19-year-old infielder Yoan Moncada. Many of those men departed Cuba under conditions that most of us couldn't imagine, and under current MLB regulations, had to establish residency in another country before they could be bid on by major-league franchises.

This article from November 2013 says that part, at least, has ended; Cubans are now free to go play in places like Mexico or Japan, but not the USA due to the restrictions that will apparently eventually end given Wednesday's announcement. It could be that the normalization of relations between the USA and Cuba could allow Cubans to come to MLB in that same way. However:

That's one possibility. Depending on what happens with the Cuban political system in the future, major-league teams might even be able to build academies as they have in the Dominican Republic, though I think any such deals are likely decades away. Here's another possibility:

Under the new situation that the United States and Cuba could find themselves in, players from the country could see rules much more like those of players from both Korea and Japan. In those instances, a posting fee is paid to the team a player is currently on, and the MLB team supplying the accepted posting fee then has a set amount of time to negotiate a contract with the player. Posting fees can be rejected by the current club however, and that could be a stumbling block for allowing players to leave their Cuban organizations.

There's no doubt that there's tremendous baseball talent in Cuba. Not only is that evidenced by the names I mentioned above, but Cuba won the silver medal at the 2006 World Baseball Classic and were baseball medalists in every Olympics in which baseball was included (gold in 1992, 1996 and 2004 and silver in 2000 and 2008), competing many times against major-league players.

MLB's officials are watching this closely, as you can imagine. Wednesday afternoon, they issued this statement:

"Major League Baseball is closely monitoring the White House’s announcement regarding Cuban-American relations.  While there are not sufficient details to make a realistic evaluation, we will continue to track this significant issue, and we will keep our Clubs informed if this different direction may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba."

Anything else we say about this now is pure speculation; we're only in the first day after the normalization was announced and there isn't even yet an American embassy in Havana. You can be sure that baseball people are trying to figure out what this means to them and a possible new place for "waves and waves" of talent that could come to play in Major League Baseball.

In discussing this topic, I ask that you please keep it to baseball and leave politics out of it. Thanks.