With Cold War relations between the United States and Cuba finally thawing, what is the best way to integrate Cuban talent into the broader world of MLB?
Over at The Sporting News, University of Illinois professor Adrian Burgos Jr. describes the history of Cuban baseball in relation to the majors, from the pre-Cuban Missile Crisis days up until the present.
Until the trade embargo was put in place in the 1960s, Cuba was the main source of foreign-born talent in the United States, primarily for the Negro Leagues at first but later for MLB once the color barrier came down. That was shut down when the Cold War took hold, but eventually Cuban players began defecting to the United States in the 1990s, a trickle at first but later in much greater numbers.
Burgos makes several key points.
***The ramshackle patchwork system of defections and third country residency requirements necessary to get around the trade embargo in recent years literally put the lives of some players in danger. The recent lifting of certain embargo restrictions should reduce that problem, as Cuban players can now earn salaries in the United States without having to risk a dangerous sea voyage or fall prey to a human smuggling operation run by drug traffickers. Quoting the United States Treasury Department:
Cuban athletes, artists, performers, and others who obtain the requisite visas will be able to travel to the United States and earn salaries and stipends in excess of basic living expenses.
That will help a lot.
***This isn't just about Cuban players getting to the United States and into MLB organizations more easily, nor is it about MLB just having access to more talent. As Burgos points out, Cuba has its own specific and vibrant baseball culture involving Serie Nacional and the National Institute of Sport and Recreation (INDER).
". . .the Cuban system develops not just players but also coaches, trainers and team managers while also providing others with practical experience in sports. These individuals move through the ranks of INDER and become the next generation of coaches, managers and officials. . .a talent drain on the Cuban league might diminish the quality of the league, but even more concerning is that it could lead to the dismantling of the baseball development infrastructure in Cuba. This would be akin to what transpired with the Negro leagues and black baseball in the U.S. after the majors launched integration."
Simply opening the island up like the Dominican Republic could have very negative effects on the game in Cuba. Obviously, the Cuban government and the Cuban people at large are not going to want that to happen.
Whatever form the new system of talent flow takes, it will need to find a balance between the interests of the individual players, the interests of MLB, and the interests of Cuban baseball institutions.
So let's talk about that. What's the best way to find that balance?