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Will American baseball get more Cuban imports?

How will opening the door to normal relations with Cuba affect the world of professional baseball, a game that so many Cubans love? Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Jim Litke of the Associated Press to understand the possible implications.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Since President Obama announced the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba, much of the discussion has naturally focused on human rights, freedom, democracy and commerce.

    But opening the doors to normal relations with Cuba could also lead to some profound cultural changes, including in the world of sports, and particularly baseball, a game that so many Cubans love.

    Hari Sreenivasan sat down with a baseball watcher to discuss the possibilities in our New York studios earlier this week.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    When people talk about traditional images of Cuba, one major cultural touchstone has been sports, specifically the country's historical reservoir of baseball talent.

    Baseball has long been the most popular sport on the island, and Cuban players have found their way into American baseball for more than 100 years. Some have made a legendary name for themselves, like former Red Sox great Luis Tiant, a three-time All-Star pitcher.

    Last year, there were 19 Cuban players on the rosters of Major League Baseball teams in the United States. That's a record. And some estimates show more than 200 players defecting over time to play baseball in the U.S.

    Cuban players have stood out in recent seasons, like Yasiel Puig, the slugger for the Los Angeles Dodgers who illegally crossed the border from Mexico to Texas in 2012, and Aroldis Chapman, an All-Star closer for the Cincinnati Reds.

    Major League Baseball has long had an eye on tapping into more Cuban talent. Now that the U.S. and Cuba are moving toward a different relationship, there are lots of questions about how it might impact the sport.

    Jim Litke is the national sports correspondent for the Associated Press, joins me now.

    So if the relations are normalized, I'm assuming one of the things that would change is a decrease in the number of stories of how players defect and get themselves across the border. I mean, some of these stories are pretty harrowing.

  • JIM LITKE, Associated Press:

    Well, yes.

    And almost anything would be better than the status quo, quite frankly. I mean, without making it too simple, the best thing you could be if you're a Cuban defector would be over the age of 23 with five years of professional experience, because then you wouldn't with subject to the international draft by Major League Baseball.

    And so you're essentially a free free agent and you're able to negotiate your own deal. You need residence outside the U.S. There are tax problems. There are all sorts of things. And yet we have got one side trying to minimize what they pay for the talent, and then the other side, agents and the ballplayers, obviously trying to maximize that. So they will probably meet somewhere in the middle.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And so some of these free free agents have made a very pretty penny.

  • JIM LITKE:

    There's about three or four that just signed contracts. Puig, you mentioned, Jose Abreu, Yasmany Tomas. They're getting six-year, seven-year deals for around $70 million.

    They're all roughly between 24 and 27 and they're very valuable, assuming that those indeed are their ages. There had been in the past — it was usually more with the Caribbean ballplayers, but age is always an issue.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Tell me, why is that these players are so sought after, when we have lots of players from Venezuela or the Dominican Republic?

  • JIM LITKE:

    Well, because Major League Baseball has set up academies in both of those countries and they have begun to really, really open up the pipeline of talented ballplayers.

    Cuba has a state-sponsored system and always has because of both the national team and their Serie Nacional, their own league. And so they have had development programs going on for a long time. The problem is that really after the breakup of the Soviet Union, a lot of the funding disappeared. That's when the defections sort of ratcheted up quite a bit and that was usually guys leaving their teams while they were traveling somewhere.

    Then the Cuban officials locked down on the ballplayers they brought with them to a lot of instances. You didn't see a lot of ballplayers. And that began the more desperate attempts. There's a saying there that no one walks off the island. So people got involved with agents, they got involved with drug smugglers, they got involved with all kinds of unsavory people, and the Major League Baseball people know this. They don't always want to know the details.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Would this be different than how we treat, say, players coming from Japan or South Korea? Or would we set up academies like we have in these other countries as well?

  • JIM LITKE:

    Well, that is one of the things that is obviously going to be under discussion. I don't know that Cuban officials would want to completely scrap their system. I don't know that they would want two systems side by side.

    All those things are going to be negotiated. I think, ultimately, we will see probably a Major League Baseball team there. It may be longer than — maybe outside of 10 years, but I think you will begin to see a normalizing relation in every way. And maybe ballplayers will be allowed to play winter ball in Cuba.

    It used to be, quite frankly, sort of a wintering season for a lot of the great Negro League players, because Cuba allowed black players around 1900.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, now there are some market forces at work here. Cuba obviously has no incentive to try to have all of it best players jump over to the United States right away.

    And then if you bring all those players over at the same time, you can't sign the contracts like the one you were talking about for millions and millions of dollars because you have an increase in supply, right?

  • JIM LITKE:

    Right.

    Well, that's going to be the ultimate supply and demand. How many ballplayers can Cuba provide? There is a lot of people who think, quite frankly, the cupboard, the talent cupboard over there is empty right now because a lot of their great, great ballplayers have managed to get out in the last couple of years.

    The national team is not as feared as it was in international play, but it's not just a talent question. The Cubans still allow aluminum bats. They took those out of the Olympics. It was hard to tell in many ways. But they had an older squad late on in international play in the mid-'90s and the early 2000s.

    So there's not a real good sense right now of how much young talent is in the pipeline. But like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, I think that if there's a more orderly process and a better governed and more resourced, better resource process, we will begin to see a lot more talent come out of that island.

    People in the U.S. don't always know, as you mentioned in the introduction, the game goes back 100 years there. It was a rallying point when they fought a war of independence with Spain because the Cubans didn't want to go to the bullfights. They wanted to play baseball.

    So it became a very, very important symbol in that society a long, long time ago.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK.

    So, the United States knows that this isn't going to happen. Major League Baseball knows this isn't going to happen overnight. What is Major League Baseball doing now to prepare for what might happen five years or 10 years down the line?

  • JIM LITKE:

    Well, I guarantee you they're trying to find a way to minimize the cost.

    There's already been talk that after 2017, I think the next collective bargaining agreement with the players, they will try to make everyone outside the U.S. subject to the same international draft. That will take away the incentive for some of the smuggling part of this.

    They will also — but if Cuban players want to leave, they are also going to probably have to agree to return some portion of their salary. That's what they have been doing in current places like in Japan. So all of those things are yet to be worked out. I think, again, Major League Baseball will try to find a way to bring Cuban ballplayers and Cuban talent over here in larger numbers, but they will do it at a much more reasonable cost.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Jim Litke of the Associated Press, thanks so much.

  • JIM LITKE:

    Thanks for having me.

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