By Merritt Rohlfing
When the United States embargo against Cuba slammed down in October of 1960, the legal flow of goods, services and culture ceased with it. That meant no more Mafia-run casinos in Havana and no more cigars or rum coming to American shores. The influence the United States wielded in Cuba prior to the embargo was as overbearing as everywhere else in the hemisphere. This meant that when the tourists and soldiers showed up they brought America’s Pastime, baseball, along with them. When the embargo hit and the Yankees left, baseball stayed.
With Cuba off-limits, a certain mystery shrouded the island, particularly with baseball. Since Major League Baseball teams couldn’t send scouts down there to hunt for talent the stories you hear about these players were half myth, their stats superhuman. Players hitting .400 with regularity. Baseballs flying a quarter mile. The tales dazzled fans and executives everywhere and led to signings great and terrible. The way the leagues are organized there’s very little parity – a team from Vilato will play a Havana team and be utterly outclassed. Time and again, throughout the years, Cuban stars have come to the US and faded because they weren’t used to consistently great competition.
The normalization of relations means this great mist surrounding Cuban baseball is fading. This means that players like Yoenis Cespedes or Jose Abreu won’t have to find cloak and dagger paths to the States and won’t waste their prime playing years toiling in an inferior league. The salaries for these guys are already huge. Abreu signed a $68 million deal with the White Sox in 2013. Cespedes got $36 million from the Oakland Athletics in 2012 and is going to get in excess of $100 million this offseason. Even less heralded players like Yoan Moncada, a slick fielding, solid hitting infielder in the Red Sox system, got $32 million as a teenager based on potential alone. It’s been happening for years and the salaries are only ramping up.
A look at the Dominican Republic gives an idea of the money baseball can bring to Cuba. Of the 868 players on rosters to start the 2015 season, 83 were from the Dominican Republic. More than 25 percent of the upper minor leagues are Dominican. The latest salary data showed that Dominican major leaguers made in excess of $291 million. This information is from 2007, before new cable TV deals made salaries skyrocket. Average MLB salaries have risen from $2.9 million in ‘07 to more than $4 million in 2015. This is the kind of money that can flow towards the cream of the crop in Cuba as teams move in and start developing their chosen players. It’s not just the players that will get paid either.
Clubs have built baseball academies across the Dominican Republic to sift out talent. Across the island, multi-million dollar complexes bring in boys as young as 12 to begin training them to ultimately make an impact in “The Show”. The New York Yankees built a $120 million complex in 2013 that includes a vacation resort for American baseball fans. This means real money for a developing economy, and with Cuba opening its borders we can count on all 30 teams to flock there and get their flag planted, hire workers, and start pulling players.
The great threat is to the Cuban Baseball League itself. Unlike Japan, where MLB and the Nippon Baseball League have a gentleman’s agreement of sorts to negotiate in good faith with Japanese players, US teams could start picking off players at will just by throwing money at them and the Cuban teams have no recourse. Often in Japan, the American team has to pay a negotiation fee, as with Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Red Sox in the mid-2000’s. It cost the Red Sox $51 million for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka, an amount paid to his NPB team the Seibu Lions. They don’t have to do this but it’s done so the NPB will allow the buying of players by the MLB and keeps the two leagues friendly. There’s no relationship between MLB and Cuban baseball because the players now flee illegally. As teams move in and build academies, absorbing young players into their spheres of influence, the traditions and excitement of what is now a cultural anchor across the island will fade. Fans in the US will certainly benefit and the people of Cuba will probably get access to more MLB games, but all at the cost of a great local tradition, not to mention the earning power of the local teams.
Major League Baseball sweeping in will benefit countless people financially, whether player or otherwise, but the opening of the island is timed poorly for the players. The reason Cespedes and Abreu and the others have been able to sign these blockbuster contracts is there was no cap on spending on international free agents. In 2013 the Commissioner’s Office has laid penalties on teams overspending internationally in an effort to promote parity. This means the Dodgers and Yankees can’t just buy every player up at exorbitant prices and hope one or two turns into an MVP. Now teams in Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Tampa have a chance. The penalties haven’t been overly effective as of yet, but the rules are evolving. This also means less money for the players. Perhaps more will be spread around for lesser athletes and it will all equal out, but the megadeals are phasing out.
Professional sports leagues are huge business in the United States. Last year, baseball revenues eclipsed $9 billion. Every team is looking for that next big star to drive ticket sales, cable subscriptions to their regional sports network and, of course, wins and it’s much cheaper to go the international route. Now that the Cuban frontier has been opened, prices should assuredly plummet since, rather than having one or two stars to choose from when a Puig or Abreu defects in secret, the whole island is available. Soon a Cuban player will be as normal as one from anywhere else. They will join the great social equalizer that is pro sports and bring money and renown back home. Something will be lost as the American baseball machine eats up their way of play, but the opportunity that looms is more than any could have dreamed of a decade ago. Who knows too, maybe some of the flair of Caribbean baseball will leak into the stodgy ways of the MLB, and we’ll all be better off for it. I for one love a bat flip or two.
Merritt Rohlfing is Director of Operations at the International Book Project, a local nonprofit organization that works in countries all over the world to spread literacy. He has studied political science and international affairs, has worked as a newspaper reporter previously, and writes about baseball in his spare time.