In Cuba, baseball brings 2 countries together

March 21st, 2016

HAVANA -- The moment was not lost on Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred.

Seated on the dais during the introductory news conference with some of the most influential men in the history of the sport Monday morning, Manfred listened intently and nodded his head. He made his points and smiled.

Welcome back to Cuba, where America's national pastime and Cuba's national passion will come together for two days for the exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team on Tuesday at Estadio Latinoamericano.

Baseball is taking center stage this week. But history and the improving relations between two once-estranged countries remains the focus.

Complete coverage: Historic Cuba visit

"One of the great things about baseball is that it is part of the fabric of American culture," Manfred said. "In the less than 24 hours I have been here, I am absolutely convinced that baseball is also part of the fabric of Cuban culture."

His sentiment mirrored President Barack Obama's comment in a statement released Monday, saying, "There's so much Americans and Cubans share -- our cultures and passions, our hopes for the future, not to mention a love of baseball." 

From a baseball standpoint, this game represents many things, but one of the more practical issues being discussed is the system in which Cuban players come to the United States, and Manfred said he hopes the event serves to bring that issue to the forefront.

The Commissioner believes a new system of acquiring Cuban talent will be resolved during the negotiations for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement as part of the overall discussions related to international talent acquisition. Moreover, he is also hopeful more games involving Major League teams will be played in Cuba, and he didn't rule out a franchise in Cuba someday. Manfred went on to say that he is open to allowing Cuban players in Major League Baseball to suit up for their country in the next World Baseball Classic, but that's a decision the Cuban Baseball Federation will have to make.

"On the one hand, there is common ground on some philosophical points," Manfred said of a new system to acquiring Cuban talent. "Everybody, I think, wants to get to a system where players can go back and forth without this overlay of human trafficking. I also think there is common ground that the system should operate in a way that allows the very best players in the world to come and play Major League Baseball. But I also think it should operate in a way that doesn't damage the domestic product in Cuba. The difficulty comes when you have more than two parties negotiating. It's hard enough to make a deal with two, and even harder with four."

The Rays are the first Major League Baseball team to visit Cuba since the Orioles traveled to the island in 1999. The two-day event began Monday with a formal introduction of the Rays' contingent at a morning news conference at the team's hotel. In addition to Manfred, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark, Cuban Baseball Federation president Higinio Velez and Cuban baseball commissioner Heriberto Suarez were among the first to share their thoughts.

Chris Archer and Evan Longoria, sporting their white Rays game jerseys and dark blue jeans, were joined by Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg and manager Kevin Cash on the dais earlier in the morning. The navy blue backdrop behind them displayed the MLB logo, the flag of the United States and the Cuban flag as part of the "En La Habana" theme of the event.

"I feel like as an organization, we are honored, and I am honored to be a part of this and come to a land where there have been so many great stars that have impacted Major League Baseball," Archer said. "Just to give them a hands-on look and to interact with the people that have produced such great talent at the Major League level is going to be a great experience."

Ceremonial first-pitch honors on Tuesday will be shared by Pedro Luis Lazo, a longtime standout for the Cuban National Team, and Luis Tiant, a three-time All-Star during his 19-year Major League career. In addition to Tiant, special guests of MLB and the MLBPA will include Hall of Famers Joe Torre and Dave Winfield, former New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter and former Major Leaguer Jose Cardenal, who is also from Cuba.

Watch a historic live look-in on beginning shortly before 2 p.m. ET Tuesday of ESPN's coverage of the ceremonies, first pitches, anthems and more, including the start of the game. The remainder of the broadcast will be available on MLB.TV.

"Throwing out the first pitch is very special, especially in Cuba," Tiant said. "That's not something that happens every day. This is history we are living now. When is the last time you saw an American president in Cuba? Almost 100 years. This is a global event in terms of baseball, but each more than just baseball. I think this can be about making lives better for the people of Cuba. It's been way too long."

Cuban legends Orestes Kindelan, Omar Linares and Antonio Munoz are also stars of the two-day event. A combination of Cuban and Major League umpires have been assigned to the game.

The historic trip began Sunday afternoon when President Obama and his family touched down in Havana's Jose Marti Airport, marking the first visit by a sitting U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. The president's traveling party is made up of a large delegation of members of Congress, including Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican and baseball fan who has been an advocate of easing travel and trade restrictions with Cuba since 2001.

"Major League Baseball and the number of Cuban players have had a big effect on the thaw that we are seeing," said Flake, who will attend Tuesday's game with President Obama. "There's really no good reason why Cuban players shouldn't be able to come and play and return home to Cuba. To force them to leave their country for good and renounce their country, we shouldn't have that or require that. I think the more Americans have been used to seeing Cuban players and the situation that they have now -- where they basically have to desert or get on a raft or come through Mexico or defect through some other country -- is dangerous. And simply, it shouldn't be required."

Defection has traditionally been the only way for Cuban players to make it to the big leagues since Fidel Castro took power in 1959, but new regulations introduced by the U.S. government last week that would allow U.S. companies, including MLB, to pay salaries directly to the player and not to the Cuban government could change that, if accepted by the Cuban government. Because of the U.S. embargo, any defector who wanted to do business with an American company must have first established residency outside Cuba and the United States.

The embargo will likely remain in place until issues such as democratic relations, human rights, property and claim issues in Cuba are resolved. However, President Obama does have the authority to license business activities or establish regulations that give a license even with the embargo in place.

Last summer, MLB proposed the creation of a new license and a new system to the U.S. government that allowed players from Cuba to enter the United States on a visa. According to the proposal, a percentage of salaries paid to Cuban players would go to a non-governmental body to support sports initiatives and education, and improve sports facilities on the island -- a move that would seemingly comply with the embargo.

"I think it was clear by the comments that were made this morning that [Cuban Baseball Federation is] looking for a system whereby somebody loosely identified as Cuban in the broadest sense of the word -- not the government -- gets paid for the development of players," Manfred said. "That's what we do in Japan. It's not like they are suggesting something that's completely foreign in the system of player acquisition. We do it in Japan and Korea, and other sports do it all over the place in terms of transfer fees."

All the changes can be traced back to December 2014, when President Obama announced he was working to thaw relations between the two countries. Additional regulations and clarification are expected in the future, and could include making a case for baseball. Major League Baseball and the MLBPA have been open about their desire to work with the White House to create a safe passage for Cuban players to the Major Leagues for several months.

"In Cuba, we are ready," Velez said. "We are not placing limits on ourselves. We are being limited by the embargo. We are ready for our players to play and maintain their Cuban nationality with the same rights. We have the same agreement with other countries. We don't want any special exceptions, just to be treated like others. We don't want our players to suffer and be victim to human trafficking, either. Somebody prepared these players, somebody made them. They are part of our baseball. We want them to have the same rights."

<p;>A big step toward strengthening diplomatic relations through baseball came in December, when several Major League players -- including Cuban-born Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, Alexei Ramirez and Brayan Pena -- visited Cuba as part of a goodwill tour of the island organized by Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association.</p;>

"I can't literally sit here and tell you what that means in terms of what tomorrow is going to look like, but I can tell you that conversations and dialogues are such that as this line moves, there's a better chance of it continuing going forward as a result of what has happened," Clark said. "The tour, the work that the government is doing and really on a fundamental level the role that baseball is playing in it is one that is pretty exciting.

"You talk about a long history here, you talk about a lot of sensitivities that exist. You realize that these hurdles and challenges aren't small and have been there for a long period of time, and you're very respectful of that. But it appears that more people are more open to having more conversations about possibilities down the road, and that's something that I think everybody should be happy about."