News / Americas

Cuba Opens Pipeline of Baseball Talent to Japan, US Left Out

Cuba's baseball player Yulieski Gourriel poses for photographs with the Cuban national flag during a news conference as he joins Japan's Yokohama DeNA BayStars in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, June 2, 2014.
Cuba's baseball player Yulieski Gourriel poses for photographs with the Cuban national flag during a news conference as he joins Japan's Yokohama DeNA BayStars in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, June 2, 2014.
Reuters

Cuba is allowing some of its best baseball players to take their skills to Japan and make good money instead of risking their lives at sea with human traffickers in pursuit of Major League Baseball dreams.

The bright lights of the U.S. big leagues do still draw Cuban prospects to speedboats in order to escape the communist-run island - one player just left the island and six others were excluded from the national team for trying.

But now they have options.

In an attempt to halt defections, Cuba is allowing some of its players to sign overseas contracts while raising the pay of those who stay.

Two of Cuba's biggest stars have signed officially sanctioned contracts this season with Nippon Professional Baseball teams, and Cuba for the first time is welcoming foreign scouts. South Koreans have also come looking for Cuban talent.

Cuban baseball officials have indicated more signings are likely, though they have not said how many.

“We would like to hire more Cuban players in the future,” said Masao Shimazaki, director for international relations for the Yomiuri Giants. “One reason Cuba has a lot of good players is because Cuba does not have an agreement with MLB yet.”

Cuba once prevented its stars from playing in the United States but now Major League Baseball teams are shut out of the Cuban market only because of the decades-old U.S. economic embargo of the country.

Without the embargo, they would be free to scout and sign players straight out of Cuba as long as they are willing to share the rights to players with the Cuban government, which also takes a 20 percent cut of the contracts plus income tax.

The shakeup in Cuba's rules comes at a time of unprecedented success for Cuban players, as typified by this year's sensation, Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox.

After defecting last year, Abreu signed a six-year, $68 million contract and deftly adapted to the big leagues. He is among the league leaders in home runs.

Since 2009, more than 20 defectors have signed MLB contracts worth a combined total of more than $330 million, according to data on Baseball-Reference.com.

Players in the Cuban league were lucky to make $20 a month until recently. Now the minimum salary is over $40 a month, and veteran players can earn several times that.

Danger at sea

Yasiel Puig defected from Cuba on a speedboat at age 21 and soon found himself entangled with Mexico's notorious Zetas crime organization, which threatened to chop off his arm if it failed to receive the promised $250,000 fee for his passage.

When Puig finally reached U.S. shores in 2012, he was rewarded with a seven-year, $42 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

By contrast, Frederich Cepeda is one of Cuba's most accomplished players over the past decade. When the Cuban government finally gave Cepeda his chance to find fortune overseas, he was past his prime at age 34 so he signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with Japan's Yomiuri Giants.

Cepeda was the first to arrive in Japan in April, followed by Yulieski Gourriel, who signed a $900,000 deal with the Yokohama DeNA Baystars in May. Both are veterans who had proven their loyalty to Cuba before being rewarded with the chance to play in Japan.

Cepeda said he long wanted to test himself against better competition but chose to wait for a legal option rather than leave behind his wife and 6-year-old son.

Defectors also give up any hope of playing for Cuba's national team or returning to play in the Cuban league. They must also wait 8 years before returning as tourists and applying for repatriation.

Even so, the United States will continue to appeal to some players.

“To be frank with you, there will be players who will defect the country because there are many baseball players in Cuba. All of them cannot sign contracts with foreign teams under this new agreement,” Cepeda told Reuters in Tokyo. “So some players will choose to play for MLB. Maybe the number of players who would do that will fall, but I don't think the number will be zero.”

Nippon Professional Baseball is a clear beneficiary of the Cuban rule changes, signing players who are off limits to Major League teams because of the U.S. embargo.

“That is not our business,” said Shigeru Takada, general manager for the Baystars. “All I am saying is that if Gourriel does well in Japan, more good Cuban players will come to Japan.”

High risk, high reward

Puig's ordeal at the hands of the Zetas was first reported in the May edition of Los Angeles Magazine, based on interviews and depositions from a related U.S. court case. The story generated ripples in baseball and some calls for change in U.S. law or Major League rules, but the issue never took hold on Capitol Hill or baseball headquarters.

For those who defect, MLB's collective bargaining agreement discourages them from going directly to the United States because that would subject the player to the draft, restricting his salary.

So defectors incur more risk by fleeing to a third country in order to become free agents and sign for as much as U.S. teams are willing to pay.

For each star like Puig or Abreu, many more defectors labor unceremoniously in the minor leagues, never to sign the big contract nor return to play in Cuba.

One veteran Cuban player who recently saw a 21-fold increase in his monthly pay - to $420 - said he never considered taking the dangerous way out, even when he was making $20 a month.

“Leaving illegally could cost you your life, although you could become a millionaire,” said Carlos Tabares of the Havana team, the Industriales. “In the end you are just merchandise. You can't play with the Mafia.”  

You May Like

Photogallery Obama Announces Plan to Send 3,000 Troops to Liberia in Ebola Fight

At US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Obama details troop deployment and other pieces of US plan More

China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

Muslims in Kunming say that they condemn the violence, it is not a reflection of the true beliefs of their faith More

Humanitarian Aid, Equipment Blocked in Cameroon

Move is seen as a developing supply crisis in West Africa More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Communityi
X
September 16, 2014 2:06 PM
Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Americans' Reaction Mixed on Obama Strategy for Islamic State Militants

President Barack Obama’s televised speech on how the United States plans to “degrade and destroy” the group known as the Islamic State reached a prime-time audience of millions. And it came as Americans appear more willing to embrace a bolder, tougher approach to foreign policy. VOA producer Katherine Gypson and reporter Jeff Seldin have this report from Washington.
Video

Video Authorities Allege LA Fashion Industry-Cartel Ties

U.S. officials say they have broken up crime rings that funneled tens of millions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels through fashion businesses in Los Angeles. Mike O'Sullivan reports that authorities announced nine arrests, as 1,000 law enforcement agents fanned out through the city on Wednesday.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid

More Americas News

Chronically Hungry Numbers Decline

Three U.N. agencies have released the State of Food Security in the World report
More

UN: Enforced Disappearances Continue Unabated Globally

UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances says more than 43,000 cases from 88 countries still remain to be clarified
More

Hurricane Odile Weakens, Still a Threat to Mexico

Odile could drench Baja California with as much as 46 centimeters of rain by Friday
More

Powerful Hurricane Threatens Mexico's Baja California

US forecasters have downgraded Odile to strong Category 3 storm, with top sustained winds of 205 kilometers per hour
More

Hard-hitting Films Tackle Homelessness at Toronto Festival

'Time Out of Mind,' 'Shelter,' and 'Heaven Knows What' all focus on characters struggling with homelessness, addiction on the streets of New York
More

After Tax Reform Triumph, Chile's President Faces Rockier Road

'Honeymoon' may be over for Michelle Bachelet as protests rise and economy, security outlook worsen
More