By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT | New York Times
Major League Baseball officials are quietly preparing to re-establish a relationship with Cuba if the United States lifts its trade embargo.
Fidel Castro, 80, has experienced serious health problems in recent years, and his brother Raúl is Cuba’s interim president, a situation that has prompted speculation about the country’s future. Baseball officials began discussions a year and a half ago about how to approach the possibility of normalizing relations with Cuba.
Baseball is contemplating a strategy for teams to sign Cuban players in an effort to create an orderly system for acquiring talent from the island, according to three baseball officials and a scholar who was briefed on the plans.
“There may not be any significant changes with our relationship with Cuba in the near term, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about these things,” Joe Garagiola Jr., the senior vice president for baseball operations, said in a telephone interview. “We are thinking about them, and that is probably the extent of what we can say at this point.”
Garagiola, a former general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, is coordinating baseball’s discussions on Cuba.
Baseball is also considering moving a minor league team to Cuba and building training academies similar to those that nearly all teams have in the Dominican Republic, according to a report earlier this month by Fortune magazine.
Major League Baseball has stepped up its efforts to expand internationally in the past year. In March 2005, baseball and the players union organized the first World Baseball Classic, a 16-team international tournament designed to broaden interest in the sport. Baseball began expansion initiatives in Asia and Africa this past off-season.
But Cuba, which is 90 miles from Florida, has a rich baseball history and is considered a future source of players, fans and revenue. The first Cuban players arrived to play professional baseball in the United States in the early 1900s. In 1946, the Washington Senators established a minor league team in Cuba, and the Brooklyn Dodgers sporadically spent spring training there in the 1930s and ’40s.
Fidel Castro took power in 1959, and the United States imposed sanctions on Cuba in 1961. Some of the Cuban players who have since reached the majors have been defectors, like pitchers José Contreras of the Chicago White Sox, Orlando Hernández of the Mets and his half-brother Liván Hernández of the Diamondbacks.
Over all, Cuba has produced 152 major league players, according to baseball-reference.com, including Minnie Minoso, Camilo Pascual, Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva and Tony Pérez.
Outside the United States and Canada, only Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic have produced more players. The highest number of Cuban players was 30 in 1967, and there were 9 last year, according to the Web site.
In 1999, Baltimore played a home-and-home series with Cuba after the Orioles’ owner, Peter Angelos, worked with the Clinton administration to make the delicate arrangements happen.
But baseball, in accordance with United States law, prohibits clubs from scouting in Cuba or any country affected by sanctions. Because major league scouts are permitted to watch Cuban players only when they compete in international tournaments off the island, much remains unknown about Cuban baseball. It is unclear how deep the talent pool is, how developed the youth leagues are and what shape the fields and equipment are in.
However, one glimpse came at a workout that the Cuban national team held in Havana right before the World Baseball Classic in 2006. At the workout, which was observed by a New York Times reporter, the players wore mismatched jerseys and used just a dozen baseballs, some of them scuffed. A major league team might use 10 dozen baseballs for a similar workout.
Cuba has a 16-team national league that plays a 90-game season from November to April. Players like infielder Yulieski Gourriel, who awed scouts at last year’s World Baseball Classic, are believed to be talented enough to play in the majors. But the overall competition is considered to be close to the play in Class AA baseball in the United States, which is two steps below the majors. Cuba has done well in international competition, including at the World Baseball Classic. It reached the championship of the event, losing to Japan.
“Everybody on our side wonders how much talent is really there,” said Lou Melendez, baseball’s vice president for international baseball operations and administration, who oversees baseball’s academies in other countries. “I don’t think it is as strong as the Dominican Republic, but nobody knows. There is a talent pool there, but we just don’t know how deep it is.”
Baseball officials have reached out to business executives, university professors and Cuban-born players to learn more about the intricacies of baseball, and life, there.
Discussions between baseball and the State Department could soon take place.
A State Department spokesman said the agency would not comment on a hypothetical diplomatic situation like the United States’ relations with a post-Castro Cuba.
Roberto González Echevarría, a professor of literature at Yale University and the author of “The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball,” said he was informally advising Garagiola and had the impression that baseball officials wanted to work with Cuba. González Echevarría was born in Cuba.
“Joe has said they want to respect the league, but the moment that major league teams can sign Cuban players, they are all going to want to leave,” González Echevarría said. “Would the players rather play in an impoverished country or play minor league baseball in America in the hopes of making it to the majors?”
One major league general manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to reveal his team’s intentions for Cuba, said his team had plans but would be restricted by whatever rules baseball imposed.
“What happens if Cuba becomes free is going to depend on the rules M.L.B. puts in place,” the general manager said. “We are keeping our eye on the situation, but we can’t do anything until the rules are different. We would treat it like any other Latin American country and look to put training facilities there.”
Another general manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for the same reason, said Major League Baseball would not let teams “just run into Cuba and sign as many players as possible.” An orderly system for acquiring players would have to be implemented, he said.
For now, the future in Cuba is unclear. Castro had emergency intestinal surgery last year and ceded leadership responsibilities to his brother. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela said recently that Castro, his close friend and ally, had “almost totally recovered” from his illness and had “reassumed a good part of his duties,” although not formally.
González Echevarría described the situation involving relations with Cuba as “extremely complicated.”
“The way they deal with a post-Castro Cuba is a process, it’s not a sudden thing,” he said. “The situation will change gradually. Baseball has to be flexible to deal with this.”