The head of Major League Baseball has floated the possibility of playing a 2016 exhibition game in Cuba, following an announcement late last year by the Obama administration and Cuban President Raúl Castro that the countries would take steps to normalize relations.
Commissioner Rob Manfred told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that an MLB game was likely to be played next year in Cuba. "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," he told the paper.
Officials in Cuba, however, said there have yet to be any talks on the topic, with Cuba’s National Baseball Directorate spokesman Antonio Díaz quoted in Reuters as saying "that may be their will, but we have not had any conversations." He added: "There is no agreement."
The last time an MLB team played in Cuba was in 1999, when the Baltimore Orioles played an exhibition game against Cuba's national team in front of 50,000 fans at Latin American Stadium in Havana. The game and the subsequent re-match took place after former President Bill Clinton eased travel restrictions to the island nation.
In December, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would begin the process of normalizing relations with Havana after a half century of enmity.
"Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future –- for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere and for the world," Obama said in December, while announcing the lifting of some travel restrictions and restrictions on remittances.
The MLB announcement on Thursday prompted optimism in both countries’ political and sports worlds, but even if the league and the Cuban government agree to an exhibition match next year, baseball experts said that it is unlikely Havana will embrace MLB recruiting anytime soon.
Peter Bjarkman, an expert on Cuban baseball who has authored several books on the topic, said simply playing an exhibition game won't suddenly result in Cuba opening up to the point where it "simply throws up its hands and says 'come in and build academies down here, sign up all our young players [and] take them off the island.'"
Bjarkman said "ideological pressure" from former Cuban leader Fidel Castro has been at the heart of "Cuba attempting to protect its baseball from professional baseball in North America."
Castro, a former pitcher at the University of Havana, doesn’t want to see individual franchises operate as for-profit corporations as they do in MLB and wants to produce strong Cuban national teams that are successful in international competitions, according to Bjarkman.
The Cuban government has allowed players play in Japanese leagues, contingent on them coming back to play in the Cuban baseball league season. But the chance to play in the U.S. leagues is only possible by defecting. A total of 184 Cuban players have played in MLB, including 95 players who have done so since 1961, according to MLB.com.
Recent high-profile players to leave Cuba include 23-year-old Yasmany Tomás, who defected last year and signed a six-year contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks worth $68.5 million. The Boston Red Sox announced last week they had signed 19-year-old Yoan Moncada to a deal that reportedly included a $31.5 million bonus. That's compared to what Reuters reported was a state-controlled monthly salary of between $40 and $200.
While obstacles remain for Cuban players to suit up for MLB teams, playing an exhibition game could at least get MLB and Cuba to first base.
“Major League Baseball certainly wants to start opening the doors and start talking about the possibility of playing in Cuba, because this is opening up the issue if nothing else and kind of setting the stage for maybe what would come next," Bjarkman said.