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

Ebola Brings Sickness, Fear, Anger

Cornell University Professor Stacey Langwick considers cultural, social aspects of outbreak More

British Fighters On Frontline of ISIS Information War

It’s estimated that several hundred British citizens are fighting for Islamic State alongside other foreign Jihadists More

Violent Quarantine Clashes Hamper Liberia's Struggle to Contain Ebola

Anger, misinformation and mistrust of government hampering efforts to contain the deadly virus More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbasi
X
Scott Stearns
August 21, 2014 9:20 PM
The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls for Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid

More Americas News

Peru's Congress Fails to Ratify Humala's New Cabinet

Key conservative allies withheld their votes, failure underscores president's waning political power as economy slows
More

US Judge Calls Argentina Debt-Swap Plan 'Illegal'

But, Judge Thomas Griesa stopped short of holding country in contempt, saying that would not help resolve dispute that led to nation's second default in a dozen years
More

Brazil Presidential Race Gets One More Candidate

Environmentalist Marina Silva to join contest for Socialist Party candidate; vote to be held October 5
More

Guatemalan General Killed in Copter Crash Near Mexico Border

General Rudy Ortiz was among five people killed; cause under investigation; weather said to have been possible factor
More

US Imposes Sanctions on Alleged Honduran Drug Gang

Treasury department alleges Los Valles group is responsible for smuggling tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into US each month
More

Pope's Relatives Killed in Argentina Car Crash

Family of pontiff's nephew killed after car plows into truck
More