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Posted December 16, 2015

Defector MLBers Make Return To Cuba; League Optimistic For '16 Spring Training Games

Published December 16, 2015    

MLB's three-day goodwill tour in Cuba began yesterday, and the league remains “cautiously optimistic” that Spring Training games will be played there, according to Nancy Armour of USA TODAY. MLB Chief Legal Officer Dan Halem said that league officials "hope to begin talks with the Cuban Baseball Federation over logistics for the games while they’re here." The Rays already have been "selected as the team that would play" next spring. Halem said that MLB would "prefer it be a two-game series." Armour notes MLB "has not played" in Cuba since '99, when the Orioles played two games against the Cuban national team (USA TODAY, 12/16). In L.A., Kevin Baxter notes moving at least one regular-season game to Cuba next summer "is also being discussed." Two MLB teams have not played against one another on the island since '59 (L.A. TIMES, 12/16).

NEW BEGINNINGS: The AP's Michael Weissenstein reported a lineup of Cuban-born MLBers "made a triumphant return to the island" yesterday with the tour. Dodgers RF Yasiel Puig, Cardinals C Brayan Pena, White Sox 1B Jose Abreu and SS Alexei Ramirez were "swarmed by fans and members of the state media." The official return of baseball defectors "was a landmark in the new relationship and a dramatic manifestation of Cuba's shifting attitude toward the hundreds of players who have abandoned the country that trained them." The players will hold two days of youth clinics while league and MLBPA execs "talk business with their Cuban counterparts," including Fidel Castro's son Antonio, who is "one of the most powerful men in Cuban baseball" (AP, 12/15). In St. Louis, Derrick Goold notes MLBPA Exec Dir Tony Clark and MLB Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre "formally began" the Cuban tour with a press conference. Officials from both the union and league "spoke of returning to Cuba in the near future ... and pledged mutual interest in reaching an agreement for the safer passage of Cuban baseball players to the majors." Halem: "It is the goal of our commissioner to open negotiations with the Cuban Baseball Federation and the government to make a safe and legal path for Cuban baseball players who desire to play in Major League Baseball." Halem added that there is a "difference between getting all of the officials in the same room for the goodwill visit" and getting them "at the same table for negotiations." Halem: "We’re not having substantive discussions here. This is an outreach to let our players ... to meet people here in Cuba and allow that to develop a closer bond" (ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH, 12/16).

PAVING THE WAY: In Chicago, David Haugh notes it had been 16 years since a major-league team visited the country, and "talk of new beginnings marked the end of the thaw." Clark also announced a $200,000 grant to Caritas Cubana, which "provides humanitarian services to Cuba" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 12/16). USA TODAY's Armour reports the official reason for MLB’s tour "is to support the game in Cuba and help pave the way for the league’s return." But the goodwill "extends to MLB's own players." Though Ramirez can "return to Cuba whenever he wants because he left legally, Abreu and Puig had not set foot in their country since defecting." When a group of a dozen fans "spotted Abreu through a set of glass doors, they cheered and raised their arms, their voices rising even louder after he acknowledged them with a thumbs up" (USA TODAY, 12/16).

HOW IT CAME ABOUT: In N.Y., David Waldstein notes a two-year effort led by MLBPA Assoicate Dir of Player Services Leonor Colon "culminated ... with the start of a good-will tour." Although the expedition is being "jointly sponsored and planned by the league office and the players’ union, people in baseball agree that it was Cuban major leaguers and Colon who laid the groundwork." Colon said that Abreu, Puig, Ramirez and Pena were "chosen based on a combination of their seniority and availability, but almost all of the roughly two dozen Cubans now in the major leagues showed an interest in going." Waldstein notes Colon "reached out" to the U.S. State Department and to the NBA. She said that the league was "particularly helpful." She then "made contact with the Cuban baseball federation." The key moment came in October when Colon "went to Havana" with MLB VP & Deputy General Counsel Patrick Houlihan and other league employees who "inspected the stadiums and worked on other aspects of the logistics of the trip." They "met with Cuban officials," including Antonio Castro. At the October meeting, the Cuban officials "were receptive to what Colon and Houlihan asked." The deal was "all but completed pending visa applications, some of which were not finished until Monday" (N.Y. TIMES, 12/16).