Baseball: America's Pas--Cuba's Pastime

Jan 27, 2015

Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig was one of the Cuban players smuggled into the U.S. to play baseball. His story has become famous.
Credit Jae C. Hong / AP Photo

Cuban baseball players live a great life compared to other Cuban residents. They make approximately $40 to $200 a month with a few extra bonus incentives, a much better salary than the average Cuban's. They also get better housing, an annual bonus and the coveted privilege of traveling.

Compare that to the life of a Major League ballplayer. The minimum annual salary is half a million dollars. Top salaries reach upward of $20 million annually. It's not hard to see why there are Cuban players willing to go through almost anything for a chance at the fame and fortune of playing in the richest league in the world.

Cuban athletes have two choices when they want to defect to the U.S. One is to use the wet-foot-dry-foot policy -- the Cuban Adjustment Act. Another is to gain residence in another country first.

What's the difference? It can be millions of dollars.

Coming to the U.S. like most other Cuban dissidents, through wet foot, dry foot, means a player would have to go to the back of the line and start a baseball career in the minors. With the second option, they'd jump to the front of the line and have the ability to sign as an unrestricted free agent with a professional team.

The Miami Herald's Linda Robertson says Cuban players have to go to another country first and set up residency there, such as the Dominican Republic or Mexico.

Gilberto Suarez, middle, pleaded guillty to human trafficking of Cuban baseball player Yasiel Puig as he leaves the Wilkie T. Ferguson Federal Courthouse in Miami with his attorney on Tuesday December 16, 2014.
Credit Miami Herald

This has allowed for a smuggling pipeline to form -- a small but lucrative industry where people transport these players from one country to another. In return many of these players have to promise a percentage of their multimillion-dollar contracts. The most famous may be the recent story of Yasiel Puig

Robertson says the smuggling business would likely disappear if relations between Cuba and the United States improves to the point where players could travel freely.

Normalized relations between the longtime foes could also mean new possibilities for the MLB. 

"Cuba is a gold mine of baseball talent. Major League teams could possibly have scouts operating freely in Cuba. They could create academies and develop players," Robertson says. 

This is not new. It was 1999 when the Baltimore Orioles split some games with the Cuban National Team in an attempt for baseball diplomacy.

The next scheduled talk between the two nations is likely to take place in Washington, D.C., sometime next month.

It may take time, but there could be a day when Major League teams can send a scout to Havana to see some 17-year-old shortstop. Robertson says there might even be a day when the MLB has a professional team in Cuba.

"Cuban players who make it in Major League Baseball are revered in Cuba and their careers are followed religiously by the Cuban people, who are very knowledgeable baseball fans."

What's not known is whether those players could go back to their country someday.

Scroll below to see photos of baseball in Cuba.

Current Cubans playing on a Major League team as of 2014:

Abreu, Jose, CWS                     Alonso, Yonder, SD          Bueno, Francisco, KC
Cespedes, Yoenis, OAK           Chapman, Aroldis, CIN      Elias, Roenis, SEA
Escobar, Yunel, TB                   Fernandez, Jose, MIA       Garcia, Onelki, LAD
Gonzalez, Miguel, PHI              Grandal, Yasmani, SD       Hechavarria, Adeiny, MIA
Iglesias, Jose, DET                   Martin, Leonys, TEX          Nieto, Adrian, CWS
Pena, Brayan, CIN                    Puig, Yasiel, LAD               Ramirez, Alexei, CWS
Viciedo, Dayan, CWS

Cubans react Thursday May 17, 2001 during the baseball match between Santiago and Pinar del Rio in Santiago, Cuba.
Credit JOSE GOITIA / Miami Herald
Former Cuban President Fidel Castro, center, laughs with Cubans players at the end of a friendly baseball game in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2000.
Credit FERNANDO LLANO / Miami Herald
Los Cuban Sugar Kings Triple AAA Baseball Club in 1959.
Credit Miami Herald
Baseball team Havana Cubans. 1946
Credit Miami Herald
A boy plays baseball with his friends next to an old car in Havana Sunday, Dec.31, 2006.
Credit Javier Galeano / Miami Herald