Thursday, April 10, 2008

U.S. Baseball Teams Still Wait To Covet Cuban Players

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By DAN GRAZIANO — Wednesday March 12, 2008

c.2008 Newhouse News Service

Spring training games in China, the season opener in Japan. Baseball is getting more international all the time.

But if you think that's something, wait until Cuba opens for business.

A wellspring of potential talent just 90 miles from Florida, Cuban baseball has remained closed-off and shrouded in secrecy for nearly five decades. But someday, Cuban players won't need rickety rafts and late-night hotel escapes to get to the U.S. and pursue their major-league dreams. And when that day comes, it could be a free-for-all.

"The Dominican Republic has 1,500 to 2,000 players signed to pro contracts. Cuba should have more than that,'' said Milton Jamail, a consultant for the Tampa Bay Rays and the author of the book "Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball.'' "It's bigger than the Dominican Republic.

Before teams can get a look at that talent, though, a somewhat complicated chain of events has to take place:

— First, the United States would have to normalize relations with Cuba, dropping the trade embargo that's been in place for 48 years and re-establishing an open relationship with the communist island nation.

— Once that happened, Cuba would have to determine what it wanted to do with its players. It could establish a professional league that would maintain control over the players, or it could simply do what the Dominican Republic and Venezuela do, which is to allow any player over the age of 16 to sign as a free agent with a U.S. professional organization.

— Assuming the latter, Major League Baseball would then have to decide, in conjunction with the players' union, the method for allowing Cuban players to come here. They could institute a draft (which the union would oppose), or a policy that would simply make all Cuban players free agents eligible to sign with any team.

And that's where it gets crazy. On the day Cuba opens up, scouts from all 30 major-league teams will flood the island. Many will go in with money, directed by their employers to sign the top players as quickly as possible, before other teams can beat them to it. And observers believe there will be plenty on which to spend.

"I believe there could be upwards of $500 million in baseball talent in Cuba right now,'' said Joe Kehoskie, an agent who has represented Cuban players for the past decade. "Cuba, which was MLB's No. 1 source of foreign talent before (Fidel) Castro took over (in 1959), has 11 million people and one of the most structured amateur baseball systems on Earth, yet only 30 to 40 Cubans are currently under MLB contract at all levels.''

The news last month that Castro had resigned and ceded power to his brother, Raul, got this conversation going, but it's hard to find somebody who thinks any real or significant change is right around the corner. At this point, talk of a day when Cuban players would be allowed to come here freely is mainly speculation and fantasy, summed up by Juan Miranda, the New York Yankees' minor-league first baseman who defected from Cuba in 2004.

"Right now, I don't think anything's going to change,'' Miranda said, with teammate Francisco Cervelli interpreting. "But if that happens, there's a lot of baseball players over there.''

The first change would have to come not from Cuba, but from the United States, which has maintained some sort of trade embargo against Cuba since 1960. Members of Congress, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., have favored legislation that would ease trade restrictions. More than 100 members of Congress have sent letters to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, arguing that Fidel Castro's resignation offers an opportunity to "think and act anew'' regarding Cuba.

The sensitive political situation is why Major League Baseball officials are reluctant to discuss the potential opening of Cuba and the impact it would have on their game.

"Right now, it's status quo,'' commissioner's office spokesman Pat Courtney said. "We'd take our cue from the State Department.''

It's easy to understand the quandary. If MLB said it had no plan in place for what to do when Cuba opens up, it would risk looking unprepared. And if it said it did have a plan in place, it would risk the anger of the U.S. and Cuban governments, and possibly even the MLB players' union.

Should the embargo be dropped, the union would strongly oppose any attempts by baseball to institute a dispersal draft or lottery system to determine which teams acquired which Cuban players. The union's position is that, since there is no professional baseball in Cuba, players cannot be "reserved'' to certain teams the way they are in Mexico or Japan, whose pro leagues have their own systems in place under which players can leave for the U.S.

"We would not permit the clubs to establish a more restrictive system than the one by which they import players from, say, Guam, or the Netherlands,'' players' association COO Gene Orza said. "I think, very simply, it's going to open up to American baseball a lot of great Cuban talent.''

But it's difficult to assess what kind of talent pool exists in Cuba because officials there keeps its talent pretty secret, for fear of defection. Cuba sent its national team to the U.S. to compete in the World Baseball Classic in 2006, but only after it received strict assurances about security. And that team, said players agent Kehoskie, didn't even represent the best Cuba had to offer.

"The Cuban national team isn't comprised of Cuba's best players, and it often doesn't even come close to representing Cuba's best,'' Kehoskie said.

So some of the players most likely to attract the attention of scouts and teams could be relative unknowns. That may be one reason why most teams aren't actively making plans for what to do in Cuba when it opens.

Jamail, whose responsibilities with the Rays include helping acclimate players from Latin countries to life in the United States, said he's brought this up a few times with team officials, but that "everybody's preoccupied with day-to-day stuff.'' Understandable, given the resources teams are putting into scouting endeavors in foreign countries that already are open to them. But that's not to say nobody has their eyes on Cuba.

"You always have to keep your eyes on that market,'' New York Mets GM Omar Minaya said. "When that time comes, whatever the rules are, we'll be ready to go and do the best job we can to sign some players.''

(Dan Graziano is a staff writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He can be contacted at dgraziano(at) Star-Ledger staff writers Ed Price and Jeremy Cothran contributed to this story.)

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