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Schwechheimer: Bringing MiLB to Cuba

Fidel Castro, Minneapolis Millers

Longtime owner/operator Lou Schwechheimer has assembled a group of investors to bring Minor League Baseball back to Cuba after a 50-year-plus absence, but they face plenty of challenges as the future of U.S./Cuba relations are still in the process of being normalized.

Schwechheimer, a former Pawtucket Red Sox (Class AAA; International League) owner/GM whose Caribbean Baseball Initiative owns the New Orleans Zephyrs (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League), a controlling share (90 percent, with the Tampa Bay Rays holding the remainder) of the Charlotte Stone Crabs (High A; Florida State League) and a minority share of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (Class AAA; International League), has been interested in a Cuban team for over a decade. He’s received permission from Minor League Baseball to pursue a Cuban MiLB team and says it could happen as soon as 2017. (Appararently Gran Stadium is potentially in the mix to host an event or two. Check out John Moist’s account of his Cuban baseball travels.) It is a great story: after 50 years and the departure of the IL’s Havana Sugar Kings, American baseball could be returning. If nothing else, Schwechheimer has other goodwill initiatives in mind, including a potential Triple-A All-Star Game, training seminars and more. From The New York Times:

The notion of returning to those days, absent the gunfire, may sound like pie in the sky, given the longstanding American embargo against Cuba. But President Obama and the Cuban president, Raúl Castro, announced plans last December to restore full diplomatic ties — a first hesitant step toward normalizing relations — and some see a chance for an exemption from the embargo: a baseball “carve-out.”

What’s more, this group’s enthusiastic leader, a veteran minor league executive named Lou Schwechheimer, has spent the last dozen years preparing for just such a moment.

He has secured the exclusive rights from Minor League Baseball to return professional baseball to Havana. He has assembled this group, called the Caribbean Baseball Initiative, which includes two highly regarded former American ambassadors. He has obtained the necessary licensing from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. He has raised considerable capital.

But that be overly ambitious. There are plenty of roadblocks to a Cuban MiLB team: a Cuba bureaucracy dotted with bureaucrats who aren’t excited about either baseball or normalized relations with the United States. Many in the Cuban baseball world resent pro baseball for luring the best players in the country away. And, of course, the economics are immensely challenging: Cuba is a poor country, with the average Cuban making around $20 a month. That doesn’t leave a lot of discretionary income for something like professional baseball. Still, this is a fascinating endeavor, and there will be plenty of folks rooting for Schwechheimer to succeed.

Photo: Fidel Castro visiting with the Minneapolis Millers during the 1959 Little World Series. Among the players: future Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos manager Gene Mauch, second from left.

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