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Obama’s Cuba Deal Could be a Home Run for Major League Baseball

The breakthrough between the United States and Cuba is being lauded for the economic and diplomatic possibilities it creates for both countries. It could also have a big impact on baseball diamonds around the major leagues. In an unusual statement about a major geopolitical event, Major League Baseball said that it was “closely monitoring” the ...

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The breakthrough between the United States and Cuba is being lauded for the economic and diplomatic possibilities it creates for both countries. It could also have a big impact on baseball diamonds around the major leagues.

In an unusual statement about a major geopolitical event, Major League Baseball said that it was “closely monitoring” the deal and would keep clubs like the Yankees and Cubs informed if the deal seems likely to “impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba.”

The comments immediately fueled speculation that teams — which already operate training camps throughout Latin America — might try to soon open similar facilities in Cuba, which is overflowing with pro-level baseball talent like White Sox slugger Jose Abreu, the 2014 American League Rookie of the Year, and Cincinnati pitcher Aroldis Chapman, famed for routinely throwing the ball above 100 miles per hour. Both players defected from Cuba before joining their teams. More recently, the Boston Red Sox inked an eye-opening seven-year, $72.5 million deal with Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo, the most ever paid for a free-agent amateur.

All three players defected from Cuba before joining their teams, and major league baseball clubs are already preparing to find the next homegrown stars. Adam Kilgore, a well-known baseball writer for the Washington Post, tweeted that he had “talked to one Latin American scouting director who said his team has prepared logistics for a Cuban academy. Teams saw this day coming.”

Indeed, the deal could open the floodgates and allow in a new generation of Cuban talent who would theoretically be able to enter the United States and sign with pro teams without taking the kind of perilous and expensive journeys undertaken by many current players. One of the best known is Los Angeles Dodgers’ slugger Yasiel Puig, who alleges smugglers held him in a Mexican hotel room and threatened to cut off body parts if he didn’t pay them 20 percent of his contract.

There’s at least a grain of truth to Puig’s incredible tale: On Tuesday Gilberto Suarez pleaded guilty to smuggling Puig out of Cuba in exchange for a $2.5 million of the outfielder’s $42 million contract. Suarez’s plea follows last month’s conviction of 41-year-old Eliezer Lazo, who was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for conspiring to smuggle 1,000 Cubans, including the Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin, through Mexico into the United States.

Orlando “El Duque” Hernández, a pitcher who won multiple World Series, was banned from Cuban baseball in 1996 after his brother Livan, also a pitcher, defected (Livan won a World Series MVP with the Florida Marlins in 1997). On Christmas day in 1997, Hernández left Cuba on a boat and eventually signed with the Yankees, where he won three World Series from 1998 to 2000, along with another in 2005 with the Chicago White Sox (ESPN recently aired an excellent “30 for 30” documentary on the brothers).

Others have taken more direct routes to get to America. During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, three Cubans defected. The most high profile of these was pitcher Rolando Arrojo, who enjoyed a short career in the majors. He jumped a fence at Cuba’s practice facility in the middle of the night where his agent was waiting to take him to Miami.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, 62 Cuban defectors have played in the big leagues. One, Fredi González, has also managed. A host of others have played in the minor leagues.

The thaw in U.S-Cuban relations also opens the possibility of a MLB game being played in Cuba. In an effort to grow its international audience, professional games have been played in Mexico, Australia, Japan and Puerto Rico. A game in baseball-mad Havana makes perfect sense.

Photo Credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images Sport