When Fidel Castro seized control of Cuba, one of his first moves was to outlaw professional baseball, which led to the demise of its only minor-league team, the AAA Havana Sugar Kings. Now, more than 55 years later, Cuba is returning to pro ball.
Officials with the Cuban national team said Wednesday they have committed to join the independent Can-Am League, which plays games in Canada and the United States, for a 19-game stretch in June. The series, which has been talked about since October, was formally unveiled on Wednesday at a press conference in Ottawa.
The games will be played over 23 days in six cities, starting in Quebec City, Trois-Rivières, Que., and Ottawa, before moving to three locations in New Jersey. It is billed as a goodwill tour as Cuba opens itself to the world amid improved relations with the United States. But Cuban authorities also plan to use the games as a tune-up for the 2017 World Baseball Classic by exposing their players to a heavier diet of North American pitching and a more demanding schedule than they would typically face at home.
"We have a lot of respect for the Can-Am League and its philosophy," Heriberto Suarez, president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, said in an interview. The Can-Am is where Toronto Blue Jays slugger Chris Colabello honed his game before landing in the majors, and is generally considered Class-A or Double-A level baseball.
"It's another example of the excellent relations between Canada and Cuba," Suarez said, speaking through an interpreter. "It is also a sign of the openness to improve relations between Cuba and the United States."
The announcement came as Major League Baseball and Cuba appeared to be inching closer to an agreement that could eventually see big-league teams able to sign Cuban players, without those athletes having to defect. Both MLB and Cuba have said they want to reach an accord to cut down on what MLB lawyer Dan Halem has referred to as a human-trafficking problem in baseball. In order to pursue big-league careers, Cuban players often put their fates in the hands of smugglers who take them off the island by sea and transport them to Mexico or Haiti, often forcing those players to sign over large portions of their future earnings.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that MLB has tendered a proposal to the United States Treasury Department that would see MLB and Cuba set up a non-profit organization that would broker contracts for Cuban players. In lieu of agent fees, a percentage of the contracts would go into the organization and be used to support youth baseball programs, education, and building sports facilities in the cash-strapped country. If approved, that proposal would allow MLB to get around the U.S. embargo, which prevents companies from providing money or services to the Cuban government and its divisions, which include the Cuban Baseball Federation. U.S. President Barack Obama has said he wants to end the embargo, but he likely lacks the support in the Republican-controlled Congress to do away with it.
Cuba has indicated it wants to be compensated for players who leave the country for MLB, arguing that it has funded their development. However the embargo prevents such direct payment. While news of the MLB proposal marks a significant step in the process, both MLB and Cuba have cautioned that a deal could take a few years to hammer out.
The Can-Am League struck a landmark deal with the Cuban federation two years ago when the Quebec Capitales franchise landed the right to sign four Cuban nationals. Those players were the first Cubans to play professionally in either Canada or the United States without defecting since the 1959 Cuban revolution closed the island for business. The Sugar Kings, then a farm team for the Cincinnati Reds, were forced to move to the U.S. and folded soon after.
Even with the possibility of an MLB deal somewhere on the horizon, Cuba continues to see its baseball ranks depleted by defections. Last month, two of its best players, brothers Yulieski Gurriel, 31, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., 22, walked away from their team at a tournament in the Dominican Republic. Their defections were seen as an indication that some players believe an arrangement with MLB won't come soon enough for their liking, particularly since Yulieski is in the prime of his career.
Mr. Suarez wouldn't address the Gurriel situation, but said he is optimistic an agreement with MLB can be achieved. "The passion for baseball is something that can unite everybody," he said. "But there are still quite a few items pending, such as the right for players to be represented by the federation rather than by traffickers who are taking advantage of the situation."
The Cuban team will face the Tampa Bay Rays in an exhibition game held in Havana on March 22, which Obama is expected to attend.
Can-Am commissioner Miles Wolff said the games in June, which will count in the Can-Am standings, will be a good test. Asked how the league will match up against the Cubans, Wolff said he wasn't sure. "We don't know. That's going to be the interesting thing, to see how it does match up, and what the differences are," he said. "For both sides it's going to be sort of an educational experience."