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Cuba exhibition on tap for 2016: MLB

Havana Sugar KingsNo surprise: We could see an exhibition game in Cuba during Spring Training 2016, as MLB and the U.S. government continue talks to launch the first MLB game there since 1999.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred confirms that talks between his organization and the U.S. government about the logistics of a game, mostly likely at Gran Stadium, the former home to Triple-A baseball in Havana and the site of most big matches. (Gran Stadium is one of the great old ballparks of Havana. Check out John Moist’s account of his Cuban baseball travels.) From the Wall Street Journal:

“The combination of their input and where we are in our calendar for 2015 makes the most likely point in time to be spring training of 2016,” he said. “It’s not a three-day exercise to play a meaningful exhibition game in Cuba. You need a little lead time to get that done, to put everything together, to be able to broadcast it in the way that it deserves.”

An exhibition game in Cuba would represent the first step toward what MLB hopes will be an expanded presence there. A baseball hotbed for decades, the island has been an increasingly rich source of talent for the league in recent years, despite the inability of MLB scouts to operate there….

“It’s a great source of talent,” Manfred said. “We’ve seen the level of interest that quality Cuban players have generated among major-league clubs. And secondly, Cuba is a country where baseball is part of the culture, like it is here in the United States, and we love markets like that.”

When President Barack Obama announced the travel changes and the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, there was a lot of excitement about about American professional baseball returning to Cuba. Since then, the excitement was tempered with some basic facts about doing business in Cuba. MLB teams aren’t interested in making a lot of money playing at Gran Stadium or another regional ballpark: they’re interested in pushing their brand in order to woo Cuban talent. Cuba isn’t exactly a gold mine in terms of Minor League Baseball doing business — the average income is $5,890, and there’s virtually no corporate base.

But the talent is there. An exhibition game would sell out, and it could carry a lot of symbolic value if, say, it involved the Washington Nationals.

UPDATE: The Cuban government says not so fast: “That may be their will, but we have not had any conversations. There is no agreement,” said Antonio Diaz, spokesman for the National Baseball Directorate.

RELATED STORIES: MLB: Still trying to figure out Cuba; Shuckers wooing Cuban teams for exhibitions

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