Contrary to the supposition of Joe and Jane Fan and the aphorism of Hall of Famer Willie Stargell (“The umpire doesn’t say, ‘Work ball!’)” playing baseball professionally requires work, and lots of it, to play competently. Unfortunately, for some players, the work includes things not customarily required at the ballpark or in the gymnasium. Players hailing from Cuba, for example. The work they must do just to play baseball in the United States has been a literal matter of life and death.
Before he was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds in a blockbuster deal last weekend, Yasiel Puig gave Los Angeles Dodgers fans a big if too-short-lived blast of hope with a mammoth three-run homer in Game Four of the World Series. Long before that, Puig was a subject of the Castro regime who escaped his $17-a-month existence in the FBC, the Cuban Baseball Federation, with a lot of risky assistance from smugglers whose only concern about him was the profit they could earn by hustling him on his way to the United States.
Los Angeles Magazine cited baseball’s “Byzantine rules” and the federal Treasury Department’s “outdated restrictions” in revealing Puig’s journey, under both of which “the only way for a Cuban ballplayer to become a free agent—and score a fat contract—is to first establish residency in a third country. That detour is a fiction, winked at from all sides, and one that gives traffickers command over the middle crossing.” One false move, as they used to say in the movies, and it’s likely to be the proverbial dirt nap.
In the end Puig had to buy his freedom from the traffickers before the Dodgers could buy him. And he’s not the only Cuban player who paid prices like that for his freedom. As FanGraphs writer Sheryl Ring exhumes, Yoenis Cespedes (now with the New York Mets, albeit recovering from yet another injury) and his family were abandoned on something close to a sand bar “600 miles southeast of Florida”; Jose Abreu (Chicago White Sox) was forced to leave his son behind; and, Aroldis Chapman (now with the New York Yankees), Yuli Gurriel (Houston Astros), Jose Iglesias (now with the Detroit Tigers), and Alexei Ramirez (now with the Tampa Bay Rays) “all faced unspeakable hardships escaping from Cuba, often using smugglers or human traffickers, and risking kidnapping or worse.”
Now the subject of a federal grand jury investigation in which the Dodgers (who signed Puig) are said to chart shady Latin American scouting personnel abetting the traffickers, the hustle involving Cuban players seeking freedom and those turning those quests into something of a big business at their exploitation may get the federal government’s far closer attention.
Baseball government has a deal with the FCB which the former says will make it possible for Cuban players to join American baseball organisations without defecting. They want the federal government to grant an exemption to the still-operating Cuban economic embargo, rather than having tried an option former deputy national security advisor Elliott Abrams suggests plausibly could have been tried: “The fake ‘residency in a third country’ rule could easily have been eliminated—and the leagues also could have lobbied the U.S. government to force Cuba to free up its players.”
Baseball’s deal with the FCB includes paying the FCB to release players 24 and younger with five years or fewer playing in the FCB, and that payment would be 25 percent of the player’s signing bonus. If it sounds similar to the posting system involving Japanese and South Korean players, stop right there. That posting system involves direct negotiating with teams, not a government-run overseer. Sports Illustrated adds a curious curlicue: “It will be up to the FCB to decide whether to release such a player.” The FCB, arm of the Castro regime, not individual teams.
For players older than 24, it would be 20 percent, even though those older players won’t need the FCB’s “consent” to join major league organisations. For one and all it comes to paying financial tribute to the Castro regime similar to the Mob’s classic protection racket. And for once in its life the Trump Administration may stand on the side of the angels (not the ones playing near Disneyland) regarding that issue, as the Washington Post—not exactly Donald Trump’s favourite newspaper—observes:
The Trump administration has signaled it has problems with a business relationship in which the Cuban government profits from a U.S. company. The agreement “would institutionalise a system by which a Cuban body garnishes the wages of hard-working athletes who simply seek to live and compete in a free society,” a senior administration official said Wednesday night, several hours after MLB’s announcement (of the proposed Cuban deal).
The former Obama Administration decided the FCB was an independent non-government entity, but they were wrong. Lest you think otherwise bear in mind that the FCB’s vice president is Fidel Castro’s son. And two sons of Cuban immigrants now serving on Capitol Hill have nothing but contempt for the deal.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), whose parents moved to the United States before the Castro conquest, and who once challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, says he’s asking the State Department as well as the White House to review the deal. “Shameful that MLB would consider joining with the Cuban regime to exploit Cuban baseball players,” says Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Miami), a son of defecting Cuban parents and a nephew of Fidel Castro’s first wife. “It would be unconscionable for an American organization to participate in human trafficking which enriches the very regime that oppresses the Cuban people.”
The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control is believed preparing to stop the deal by revoking the license it granted MLB to investigate a deal with Cuba. The idea of baseball paying tribute to a tyranny with money that would otherwise belong to the Cuban players it professes to want to help is only slightly less grotesque than the crimes committed against Cuban players who ask nothing more than a free opportunity to sell themselves as baseball players on a free baseball market. The deal might force most of the notorious baseball smugglers out of business but legitimise the Castro regime as human baseball traffickers.
Abrams describes those crimes thus: “[That] story of human trafficking, of exploitation by a Communist state, and of dangerous escapes from Cuba was overlooked by Major League Baseball. The basic attitude was willful blindness: We will deal with you if you show up, and there is no interest in how you got here.” But nobody ever said baseball government was any wiser than government government, not without incurring a loud round of derisive laughter, anyway.