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MLB announces deal allowing Cuban players to come to USA legally

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A new agreement should mean the end of dangerous human trafficking of baseball players.

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB) announced a new agreement that will allow Cuban baseball players to come directly to MLB in a “safe and legal” manner. The agreement, which was the product of years of negotiation, seeks to end the black market and human trafficking that has put so many Cuban ballplayers in physical danger (as well as legal and financial danger) as they tried to pursue their dream of playing baseball at the highest level.

The agreement is somewhat similar to the posting system that MLB has with Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), as well as South Korea’s KBO and Taiwan’s CPBL. All Cuban ballplayers who are at least 25 years old and have at least six years of professional experience are free to negotiate and sign an agreement with any major league team. Players who don’t meet those qualifications may also be released by their FCB team and allowed to sign with an MLB team.

Any team that signs a Cuban ballplayer under 25 years old must pay an additional “release fee” to the player’s Cuban team that is equal to 25 percent of the player’s signing bonus. When a player who is 25 or older signs with an MLB team, that team must pay the player’s former Cuban team a release fee on a sliding scale of between 10 and 15 percent of the bonus.

The bonus money for all players under 25 years old will count against an MLB team’s “international pool money” for that year’s signing period. The release fee will not count against the team’s pool money.

The players who sign will have to qualify for a work visa in the United States. Players who sign with MLB teams will be allowed to return to Cuba in the offseason and play winter ball in Cuba with the permission of their MLB team.

The stories about Cuban players risking their lives by placing their fate in the hands of smugglers, who often extort the players for more money later, have been horrific. The purpose of this agreement is to put an end to that and to provide Cuban baseball players with a safe and legal way to play in a major league organization.

Among current Cubans playing in MLB, this news was greeted with universal joy. Many of them were put into extremely dangerous situations when they left Cuba and they are all extremely happy that their fellow countrymen will not have to trust human traffickers to follow their dreams in the future. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu said:

Knowing that the next generation of Cuban baseball players will not endure the unimaginable fate of past Cuban players is the realization of an impossible dream for all of us. Dealing with the exploitation of smugglers and unscrupulous agencies will finally come to an end for the Cuban baseball player. To this date, I am still harassed. The next generation of Cuban baseball players will be able to sign an MLB contract while in Cuba, they will be able to keep their earnings as any other player in the world, they will be able to return to Cuba, they will be able to share with their families, and they will be able to play the sport they love against the best players in the world without fear and trepidation. Great day for Cuban baseball players

And Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig said in the announcement of the deal:

To know future Cuban players will not have to go through what we went through makes me so happy. I want to thank everyone who was involved in making this happen and thank them personally for allowing an opportunity for Cuban baseball players to have the ability to come and show how talented they are. Thank you.

This deal also shows a rare recent point of agreement between Commissioner Rob Manfred and Players’ Association president Tony Clark. Manfred said:

For years, Major League Baseball has been seeking to end the trafficking of baseball players from Cuba by criminal organizations by creating a safe and legal alternative for those players to sign with Major League Clubs. We believe that this agreement accomplishes that objective and will allow the next generation of Cuban players to pursue their dream without enduring many of the hardships experienced by current and former Cuban players who have played Major League Baseball.

Clark agreed with Manfred and said:

Establishing a safe, legal process for entry to our system is the most important step we can take to ending the exploitation and endangerment of Cuban players who pursue careers in Major League Baseball. The safety and well-being of these young men remains our primary concern.

Major League Baseball has been assured by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control that this agreement is valid under the current Obama-era regulations for businesses dealing with Cuba. However, those regulations have been criticized by some in the current administration, including the current president. But so far, they have not moved to change those regulations and the Obama-era rules remain in place. There is a real fear, however, that this deal could be scuttled by a change in US policy.

And there is opposition to the deal in Congress:

However, many Cuban-American groups support the deal. Ric Herrero, policy director of the Cuban Study Group, told USA Today that the benefits of this deal for Cuban ballplayers and the Cuban people as a whole far outweigh any benefits for the current Cuban government.

MLB has gotten a bit of bad publicity over the past few months over their lobbying efforts in Congress and much of that has centered around the so-called “Save America’s Pastime Act” that allows minor league players to continue to be paid a sub-minimum wage. However, a potentially positive side of that lobbying could be if it keeps Congress and the current administration from undoing this agreement.

Before the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Cuba was a hotbed of major league talent with several stars like Luis Tiant, Minnie Minoso, Tony Perez and Tony Oliva coming to America and making the game better for their presence. After a hiatus of almost 60 years, it is hoped that this agreement will reopen that path to the benefit of both baseball and the Cuban people.