Commissioner Rob Manfred said during Tuesday's historic game, which the Rays won, 4-1, against Cuba's National Team, in Havana that he intends to work toward a relationship between Major League Baseball and Cuba and not solely wait for the political process to play out.The United States enacted the current embargo
Commissioner Rob Manfred said during Tuesday's historic game, which the Rays won, 4-1, against Cuba's National Team, in Havana that he intends to work toward a relationship between Major League Baseball and Cuba and not solely wait for the political process to play out.
The United States enacted the current embargo after a 1959 communist revolution, and that embargo cannot be lifted without the agreement of the U.S. Congress, which has continued to resist a change, though President Barack Obama's ongoing efforts to thaw old Cold War relations could change that.
"When I think about the embargo, I am, I think, I hope, smart enough to realize that there are much larger issues in play with respect to removing the embargo than just baseball's issues," Manfred said in an in-game interview with ESPN. "And I do believe it is possible to make an agreement and progress on baseball's issues, even if the embargo stays in place for some period of time.
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"We're going to proceed along those lines."
Tuesday's exhibition at a packed Estadio Latinoamericano, which seats 55,000, was attended by President Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, along with an extensive MLB delegation led by Manfred. The Commissioner reiterated that baseball already is playing a foundational role in what President Obama said he hopes will be a new era of communication between the two nations.
"You've heard it said over and over again the last couple of days: that sport can form sort of a foundation of people making relationships and trying to move forward," Manfred said. "Over the longer haul, if we could get to a regularization of relations, that baseball could be significant in terms of driving the economy and development here in Cuba.
"My only regret with that is that not everybody who might have been interested was able to participate. I hope over the years that we'll have a continuing flow of people back into the country here, so that more of our guys get a chance to come back."
Manfred said player movement will be the first area of focus after this game.
"I think it's very important for us to get back with the Cuban Baseball Federation and with the officials that we've been working with in Washington to see if we can nail down an agreement on player movement," Manfred said. "I think the key for us is to get out of a situation where we have human trafficking and people taking risks that simply are not acceptable to us. That will be our priority when we get back to the United States tomorrow."
This week's visit to Cuba already has shown a number of positive signs.
"One of the people we invited to come with us on this trip was Steve Keener, [the CEO] of Little League Baseball," Manfred said. "We formed a great relationship with him. Steve was here in order to explore the possibility of getting licenses in order to build some Little League fields here in Cuba. Kids here tend to play on full-size fields, which is very difficult for young kids.
"We had a great youth event [Monday] just outside Havana. Some of the legends of Cuban baseball were there. We had a large number of kids, over 100 who participated in a clinic. The coaches of the Rays went out and actually conducted the clinic. [MLB chief baseball officer] Joe Torre was there. It's just a great day.
"We want kids playing everywhere. It's not just a domestic effort. I think we've made the most noise domestically but we want to do the same thing internationally."
When asked if this visit could lead to an eventual worldwide Draft, Manfred said the issues are "separate but related."
"I think that sooner or later, baseball is going to get to a situation where players enter the game broadly defined by the same mechanism," Manfred said. "Whether it's a Draft that's domestic and a separate Draft that covers the rest of the world, whether it's one Draft, I think we need to get to a situation where players enter the game the same way. There's a certain equity to that, and I think it's important for the competitive balance of the game.
"There's nothing more important today in terms of competitive balance than access to entering talent. If we had a Draft that covered everybody, I think it would be a real improvement."
Although Manfred said MLB is "a growth business," he said he never could envision a case where Cuba is left without its own elite players to watch at home.
"I want to be careful about the relationship that we make with Cuba," Manfred said, "because as with Japan, I want the domestic product to flourish. I don't want to take all the players out of Cuba."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog.