Leonys Martín was the first Cuban baseball player Paul Minoff ever represented. Minoff, an attorney with GrayRobinson in Fort Lauderdale, was astonished by the scary stories Martín told him about being smuggled out of communist Cuba by human traffickers.
"There was one instance where there was an attempted abduction,” Minoff recalls Martín telling him. “And guys came in with guns, and doors were kicked down, and individuals came basically trying to take him, saying, ‘He belongs to us, not to you.’”
That was almost a decade ago on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. The smugglers had taken Martín there to negotiate a contract with Major League Baseball, or MLB, based in the U.S. Martín was one of the world’s best center-fielders, so he expected to score a multi-million-dollar deal – and his smugglers expected a fat cut. But another smuggling ring said it had dibs on Martín. Hence that armed standoff at a Mexican motel.
"These players were treated like diamonds,” says Minoff. “And the incentive for someone else to steal them was also there – and that was a substantial risk to players like Leonys.”
Fortunately no one was hurt or killed in the case of Martín – who did ink a $3 million-a-year contract with the Texas Rangers. (He now plays for the Cleveland Indians.) But folks have been shot in disputes over other defecting Cuban ballplayers.
That is why MLB struck a deal last month with the Cuban Baseball Federation. MLB teams may now negotiate with Cuban players – without those players having to defect from the island, without them being exploited by criminal traffickers.
“We were allowing them to be put in harm’s way and that’s not acceptable,” says Minoff, who led the drive to prosecute the leader of the crew that smuggled Martín, Eliezer Lazo, who was sentenced to 14 years in U.S. federal prison for extortion.
“The point of this agreement is: let’s treat these people like we do any other international player.”
In exchange for Cuba letting MLB approach a Cuban player as it does any other international player, MLB teams will pay the Cuban federation a fee of up to 20 percent of the players’ contracts.
But that, says Florida Senator Marco Rubio, is the foul ball in this deal.
Rubio, a Cuban-American, opposes normalization of relations with Cuba. And in a series of tweets, he called the MLB agreement “immoral” – and illegal. He insists the Cuban Baseball Federation is an arm of the Cuban regime – and says any fee MLB pays it violates the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba (as does, technically, paying out U.S. income that the Cuban government can tax, as Havana may do in this case).
As Rubio was tweeting last month, Cuban Baseball Federation President Higinio Vélez was insisting to reporters in Havana that his agency is not part of the Cuban government. The Obama Administration drew that same conclusion when it let MLB start negotiating with Vélez. But Rubio wants the Trump Administration to nullify all that. Media reports suggest it just might.
But if it does, what is the alternative to the status quo?
Some MLB critics say Cubans wouldn’t have to go to third countries like Mexico if the league changed its rules and let players who defect directly to the U.S. still negotiate as international free agents. (Once they reside in the U.S. they can’t.) But MLB’s deputy commissioner of baseball administration, Dan Halem, says even if the league changed the rule just for Cuban players – which the league’s players’ union isn’t likely to accept – the Cubans would still have to make a risky defection.
“There’s simply no evidence that making that change would prevent human trafficking,” says Halem. “In fact, it’s my understanding that it’s actually harder to enter the U.S. than many other countries. So such a rule change may result in more sophisticated smuggling of Cuban players to bring them directly to the United States.”
As a result, those who disagree with Senator Rubio say the MLB-Cuba deal is the only real means of protecting Cuban players from criminal rings. Many of them also say it reflects the U.S.’s central aim of normalization: to help empower private Cuban citizens like the island’s fledgling entrepreneurs.
“This is going to drive the conversation on wealth creation on the island like nothing else,” says Miami Cuban-American Ric Herrero, who heads the Cuba Study Group in Washington D.C.
“Is there a collateral benefit to the Cuban government? Yes. But is it worthwhile in the grand scheme of things because it benefits people much more than it does the government? Absolutely.”
Right now fewer than 30 Cubans play in the major leagues. That will almost certainly grow with the new agreement.
"But it's hard to think a few baseball deals are going to bring in more income to the Cuban regime than the landing fees from U.S. airline traffic or docking fees from U.S. cruise lines do," Herrero argues.
WLRN reached out to Senator Rubio for comment; he did not respond. But normalization supporters believe Rubio and his allies in the Trump Administration see their efforts to kill the baseball deal as an important political test.
“I think it’s about being able to prove to their patrons in Miami that they can sway this administration,” says Herrero.
If they can it will be a home run for anti-communist hardliners in Miami. The question is whether it will mean Cuban baseball players have struck out.