We end 2015 with a countdown of the 10 biggest stories of the year on Ballpark Digest, as chosen by editors and partially based on page views. Today, #6: With a normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States, professional baseball eyes opportunities.
This coming January 3 will mark the 55th anniversary of the United States breaking off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower closed the American embassy in Havana. Later that year new President John F. Kennedy launched the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, further souring relations between the two countries.
But baseball’s relationship with Cuba had soured before Eisenhower’s action. Major League Baseball teams, including the Brooklyn Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates, had held spring training in Cuba in the 1950s, and Minor League Baseball teams had played in Havana since 1946. That ended in 1960, the last year the International League’s Havana Sugar Kings — owned by the legendary Bobby Maduro — played out of Gran Stadium, which is still standing. Before Eisenhower closed the American embassy, the U.S. Government responded to the nationalization of American businesses by pulling them from Cuba. That led MLB Commissioner Ford Frick to order the Sugar Kings to be moved to Jersey City on July 8, 1960, and the baseball relationship between Cuba and the United States has never been the same.
Until now. With the Obama Administration normalizing relations with Cuba, professional baseball has responded with its own normalization process. In March 2015, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that work was underway to bring a spring-training exhibition game to Cuba in March 2016. And while longtime owner/operator Lou Schwechheimer announced plans for some sort of Minor League Baseball presence in Cuba in 2016 — a presence that will more likely amount to some sort of exhibition game and outreach program, rather than an MiLB team setting up shop in Havana — we should see bigger news any time soon about the Tampa Bay Rays playing in Havana the last week of spring training, as the team has set aside three days on March 28-30 for a potential Cuban trip.
One more sign that progress is being made: Major League Baseball has requested the U.S. Government allow direct signing of Cuba players in association with the Cuban Baseball Federation. This would set up a process similar to those enjoyed between Cuba and other leagues in countries like Mexico and Japan. It would smooth the way for Cubans to enter American leagues without the threat of kidnapping and extortion, while also provided sorely needed hard American currency to the Cuban government. Congressional Republicans have worked to thwart the Obama Administration on normalized Cuban relations, but there are ways for the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to issue a license allowing such signings, without Congressional approval.
All these efforts should see some level of fruition in 2016 — leading to changes for years and decades to come.
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