By Diane M. Grassi
“This is a good baseball town, and not to worry, you’re playing in front of the greatest baseball fans in the world.” None other than Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro, made that remark on March 28, 1999 at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, Cuba.
If one did not know better, such a quote could have been attributed to any number of Major League Baseball (MLB) team owners or the commissioner of MLB himself, Allan H. (Bud) Selig.
And as regards Cuban-U.S. relations, they have been notable in recent headlines due to one Ozzie Guillen, current Miami Marlins manager and former manager of the 2005 World Series Champion Chicago, White Sox. He stirred things up a few weeks back when he made the now infamous quote, “I love Fidel.” It was cited at the very beginning of the April 09, 2012 Time magazine article titled, Big Fish, by Sean Gregory.
But it should come as no news-flash to fans of MLB and to media-types that Ozzie Guillen is a well-known live wire and has been throughout his MLB managerial career. He is but a gaffe-in-waiting.
Just the same, Ozzie is often invited to partake in MLB’s post-season coverage as a live commentator for various broadcast outlets, hired precisely to offer his opinions and to add to game analysis.
Yet, Ozzie Guillen is simultaneously admired and excoriated, often by the media and MLB, or the folks who just happen to employ him. And ironically, he sometimes represents both entities at the same time and with their blessings.
Wind him up and watch what the serial “blabber mouth” might say. And both the media and MLB need a proverbial kick in their collective behinds for their then unchallenged and self-righteous tones, when they disapprove of some of Ozzie’s schtick.
But Ozzie also can conveniently serve as a distraction. No better example could be made than by the actions or inactions of the media itself. Rather than addressing the relationship between MLB and its interest in Cuba’s national team players, it focuses on a guy who is but a lightning rod for sound bites.
Incidentally, the Showtime cable network will feature Ozzie Guillen and the Miami Marlins in The Franchise, to air as a reality show starting this July. Will MLB pull the plug on that?
As recently as January 2011, the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which presides over the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR), slightly revised some of its regulations. The CACR are central to the Cuban-U.S. embargo and the relevant sanctions by the U.S. government on commerce, trade and residential status as it regards Cuba as well as honoring Cuba’s own decrees.
The revisions included changes in transactions and licensing authorizations regarding Cuban nationals who take up permanent residence in a county outside of Cuba and outside of the U.S., while seeking U.S. residency.
As this applies to MLB, it changes the way in which it does business with such Cuban defectors. Instead of defectors having to establish residency in the U.S., which could take months after seeking asylum, and then applying for a license through the OFAC to receive “unblocked” status in order to do business with MLB, it now offers an alternative.
Under the new rules, once a Cuban national establishes permanent residence in a country outside of the U.S., he is automatically granted “unblocked” status. Much to the chagrin of MLB, the “unblocked” status loophole is a way for such players and by extension their agents, to avoid the compulsory MLB amateur draft and may become free agents.
Should a Cuban defector choose asylum in the U.S. first and then establish U.S. residency, he may not be granted free agency and must enter the MLB draft. Therefore, it is far more lucrative for the Cuban national to contract as a free agent and it allows him to choose the highest bidder.
So for all of his goodwill toward Cuba, as Bud Selig visited with Castro the week of the Home-and-Home Series exhibition game that took place on that March 28th day in 1999, it would not be surprising if he were to have been taken aback by these latest measures by the Department of Treasury, which work against MLB’s balance sheets.
And should MLB tamper or try to negotiate with such players while they are pending permanent residency in a foreign country, it could run afoul of federal law. Such has been rumored that Chicago Cubs representatives have tried to enter negotiations with Cuban player, Jorge Soler, currently residing in the Dominican Republic but not yet a permanent resident of that country.
And little did MLB expect that their most likely intent to find cheap labor, all those years ago, would be undermined by the very agencies that supposedly hitched their wagons to Selig and Co.
In fact, it was Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, who accompanied Selig on that mission to Havana in 1999, and was quoted at that time saying of Castro, “He’s the principal political person in his government. If he invites you to sit with him at the ballgame, good manners would dictate that you accept.”
And MLB commissioner, Selig, waxed poetic saying, “This is part of a sports and cultural exchange that our State Department wanted us to do. It was logical that it be the linchpin of that exchange.”
Both were referring to their delegation which celebrated the supposed historic exhibition series between the Cuban All-Stars, comprised of members of the Cuban national team and the then Baltimore Orioles. A game had not been played against an American team in Cuba since 1959 until that date.
MLB felt that is was on the precipice of breaking open Cuban-U.S. relations through MLB. But before we all start strumming Cumbaya, do not assume that MLB was on a mission to spread democracy and world peace. Rather, it was on its own fact-finding mission to find its own diamonds in the rough for its leagues.
And as multi-million dollar salaries are now routinely dangled before potential MLB players from Cuba, the primary risks of life, limb and separation from family rests with the Cuban defector himself, not MLB.
Over the past 20 years, MLB teams, initially with the Los Angeles Dodgers, have all set up shop in the Dominican Republic and/or Venezuela, whereby baseball academies have become multi-million dollar factories.
The idea is to pick potential big league talent which is mined and molded into shape by developing baseball fundamentals in Latino youth. With room and board and professional instruction, including classes in English, the MLB teams are banking on that some of these kids, as proven for decades now, will come to America, but will necessarily come cheap, as part of its criteria.
And sadly, these 3rd world youth, actually have a leg up on our African-American boys, who have left baseball in droves in the past four decades. In fact, African-Americans enjoyed a 17.5% participation rate in MLB in 1959; only 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, which is more than double than what it is today.
No mystery. MLB no longer courts African-American boys. It is but too easy for it to say they have other interests.
No problem, for the foreign Latin national is the gift that keeps on giving. And as long as there remains no world draft, where the age requirements are on a level playing field, do not expect things to change, either. After all, a boy in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, for example, can enter a minor league contract at age 16. American players must wait to age 18 and enter the draft.
But MLB has an insatiable appetite for this young crop of uninformed and naïve Latino talent. And it will not be satisfied until it has thoroughly strip-mined every last iota of talent, as cheaply as it possibly can.
MLB was most likely hoping that the initial trip in 1999 would open the floodgates for a future one-way exchange of talent between the U.S. and Cuba, given that MLB had even footed the bill to renovate the Estadio Latinoamericano prior to the March 28, 1999 game. It was in a state of severe disrepair.
And later that spring, on May 5, 1999, the Cuban All-Stars, with as few potential defectors in tow, played the Orioles again, but in Camden Yards, Baltimore; thus the series name: Home-and-Home.
There also has been speculation, throughout the media, since the last World Baseball Classic (WBA) in 2009, that a potential 2013 or 2017 WBC could use that same stadium in Havana as a host sight. But certainly that would be a logistical nightmare, at the very least for broadcasting purposes, at this point.
So the questions remain: Will MLB continue to pursue Cuba with the façade of advancing Cuban-U.S. relations? Will it do so at the risk of alienating Cuban-American fans, much like Ozzie did? And if so, does MLB really care other than to offer lip service as it routinely does on many issues?
MLB is not the United Nations (U.N.) of sport but rather a $7 – 8 billion private industry, which still enjoys all anti-trust law exemptions – more than any other professional sports league.
And for every El Duqueʹ Hernandez, Livan Hernandez, Kendry Morales, Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, amongst several others who have been granted multi-million dollar contracts in more recent memory, MLB must address the fact that talent also requires development in the U.S.; not the lack of it as in the African-American community.
And if a Cuban national does not make it to the big leagues, then what will become of him, isolated permanently from his family and supports systems, in a foreign land?
Yet, one can only hope that one day MLB will not solely rely upon the almighty dollar to feel right about its decisions but also will do right, on behalf of not only American baseball community but for the Latin American community; rather than just bleeding its talent dry. And that is what being a good ambassador is all about.
Copyright ©2012 Diane M. Grassi