HAVANA (CBSMiami/CNN) – Some big and controversial changes are coming to the way ballplayers from Cuba can chase their dreams of playing for Major League Baseball.
Officials with the Cuban Baseball Federation said Wednesday they had reached a deal with MLB that would allow Cuban citizens to play in the majors.
For the first time Cuban players would not be forced to defect to play in the major leagues, now that an agreement has been made that would allow the Cuban government to claim a fee from the MLB team that hires a player.
“The agreement, materialized after three years of negotiations, guarantees a collaborating relationship, stable and not politicized, between MLB and (the federation),” the Cuban baseball organization said.
Previously baseball players who defected were banned by the Cuban government from returning to the island.
Under the new agreement they will retain their Cuban residency and ability to play with the Cuban national league.
In the past, getting to MLB was often a dangerous route for the best players from Cuba, which dominated world amateur baseball for decades.
Some left their squads while traveling abroad with a national team, but others risked their lives by depending on smugglers to get them out. Many settled in third countries to avoid the MLB amateur draft and make the most money as free agents.
Two years ago several lawyers who have investigated the Cuban player market talked with CNN Business about how figures in a violent criminal underworld smuggled players to professional teams.
They said MLB was ignoring the situation.
Dan Halem, MLB’s chief legal officer, told the Washington Post on Wednesday that Cuban players often had to pay large amounts to get out of their home country.
“Cuban players coming to MLB have been smuggled out by human trafficking organizations that are often tied to other criminal organizations, and often they lose a big chunk of their bonus to pay for their passage out of Cuba,” Halem told the Post. “And often, some unsavory characters continue to harass the player or their family if they believe they weren’t given the full amount.”
He said the agreement doesn’t change the way the 30 MLB teams will do business with players.
“Literally the only reason we are doing this agreement is to try to end the trafficking of Cuban players,” he said.
Ted Henken, a Cuba expert and chairman of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at New York’s Baruch College, said it was big news.
“But the devil is in the details. I’d ask how alike or different will it be from the just terminated deal that had Cuban doctors in Brazil?” he said. “What portion of earnings will go to the players vs. the (government)? What rights or particular stipulations will guide the agreement or control the players while in the US and MLB?”
Yoani Sánchez, director of the local news site 14ymedio.com and a frequent government critic, was also concerned about the Cuban government’s position.
“Something unthinkable with Fidel Castro … Cuba Baseball Federation signs historic agreement with Major League Baseball. Players from the island can be contracted by MLB, but still unclear how much will be earned by the state and how much by the athlete,” he tweeted.
The agreement says players from Cuba who are 25 or older and have six years of experience in Cuba’s top professional league can be released. An MLB team will have to pay a release fee to the organization for the player, the statement says.
“The contract will contribute to stopping illegal activities like human trafficking that for years have put the physical integrity and life of many talented young Cuban baseball players at risk,” the federation said.
According to the Baseball Almanac website, there were 25 players who were born in Cuba who played in the major leagues this past season.
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