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

Yemen Brings US, Iran Closer to Naval Face-off

US sending two more ships to waters off coast of Yemen to take part in 'maritime security operations' More

Minorities Become Majority Across US

From 2000 to 2013, minorities became the majority in 78 counties in the United States. Here's where those demographic shifts are happening More

Japan's Maglev Train Breaks Own Speed Record

Seven-car 'magnetic levitation' train traveled at more than 600 kilometers per hour during test run Tuesday More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Paini
X
Shelley Schlender
April 20, 2015 7:03 PM
Pain has a purpose - it can stop you from touching a flame or from walking on a broken leg. As an injury heals, the pain goes away. Usually. But worldwide, one out of every five people suffers from pain that lasts for months and years, leading to lost jobs, depression, and rising despair when medical interventions fail or health experts hint that a pain sufferer is making it up. From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Italy Rescues Migrants After Separate Deadly Capsize Incident

Italy continued its massive search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Monday for the capsized boat off the coast of Libya that was carrying hundreds of migrants, while at the same time rescuing Syrian migrants from another vessel off the coast of Sicily. Thirteen children were among the 98 Syrian migrants whose boat originated from Turkey on the perilous journey to Europe.
Video

Video New Test Set to Be Game Changer in Eradicating Malaria

The World Health Organization estimates 3.4 billion people are at risk of malaria, with children under the age of five and pregnant women being the most vulnerable. As World Malaria Day approaches (April 25), mortality rates are falling, and a new test -- well into the last stage of trials -- is having positive results in Kenya. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA from Nairobi.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.

VOA Blogs

More Americas News

Chileans Continue Protest Against Bishop With Links to Abuser

Juan Barros, recently appointed to southern Chile diocese, is accused of having shielded country's most notorious pedophile priest
More

In Cuba, New York Governor Cuomo Seeks to Open Doors to Trade

Cuomo met senior officials in Havana Monday as head of high-powered business delegation looking to take advantage of the easing of restrictions with Communist-led island
More

Argentine Prosecutor Dismisses Case Against President

Allegations were originally leveled by late prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was found dead in his flat with a bullet wound in January
More

UN Ready to Continue Anti-crime Commission in Guatemala

Guatemalan president expected to announce decision on two-year renewal of CICIG's work by end of the month
More

Colombia's FARC Rebels Vow to Maintain Unilateral Cease-Fire

Colombian government responds by reaffirming that it, too, was committed to peace process, but it blames FARC for renewed violence
More

As Petrobras Scandal Spreads, Economic Toll Mounts for Brazil

Key infrastructure projects have been suspended or scrapped, some suppliers have sought bankruptcy protection and job losses are mounting by tens of thousands
More