The story of how Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig left the island of Cuba and made his way to the United States to play baseball is the stuff of fear, desperation and heroism.
Puig’s successful attempt was his fifth. Thanks to personal and professional interests in Miami and Cancun, he and three others had an escape plan, but it did not go according to design. They spent more than a day running, hiking and swimming from one part of the island to another to meet their transport.
Puig was 21 years old. He was a prize of the Cuban government, but he wanted to play baseball in the United States. That was not allowed, at least not legally under Cuban law.
Eventually, Puig reached Mexico, and got to the United States, but not before suffering further hardships as a hostage to the human traffickers working out of Mexico. He was not the first Cuban to brave the conditions that would allow him to achieve asylum in the U.S. in order to play the sport that, in Cuba, is more of a religion than it is or ever has been in the United States.
Those struggles may someday no longer be necessary, now that the United States has, to some extent, normalized relations with the island nation which sits just 90 miles south of our borders.
Normalization has begun, but it is not whole. Even though major airlines are now scheduling regular fights to Cuba, there are still various trade embargos. Americans can only visit Cuba if they are going for one of a series of regulated reasons having to do with business or government purposes.
Major League Baseball has proposed that the U.S. government allow Cuban players to sign directly with American teams. MLB would pay a portion of the players’ salaries to a Cuban-controlled organization that would support baseball on the baseball-crazed island.
President Barack Obama, who spearheaded the normalization of relations between the two countries, will go to Havana in late March, during which time he will see an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays of the American League and the Cuban national team.
Even though there are currently more than a dozen Cuban players on major league spring training rosters, it is not an everyday occurrence that a Cuban player get to the States to play. Any new regulations would have to be agreed upon by the baseball players’ union (with regard to the player’s salary including a payment to the Cuban government) and the Cuban state officials.
Cuban players in the United States serve as an advertisement for the poor island country. But Cuba sees America as a thief of sorts when it comes to its baseball players. According to Peter Bjarkman, a historian and author of an upcoming book entitled Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story, “they realize if they simply open the doors and allow the players to go to Major League Baseball, they not going to have much of a national baseball structure left.”
What would happen to Cuban baseball is very similar to what has happened to college basketball since under-classmen and high school players have been allowed to go directly to the National Basketball Association.
Kent McDill is a staff writer for Millionaire Corner. McDill spent 30 years as a sports writer, working for United Press International and the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill. From 1988-1999, he covered the Chicago Bulls for the Daily Herald, traveling with them every day through the nine-month season. He also covered the Bulls for UPI from 1985-88, and currently covers the team for www.nba.com. He has written two books on the Bulls, including the new title “100 Things Bulls Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die’, published by Triumph Books. In August 2013, his new book “100 Things Bears Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die” gets published.
In 2008, he resigned from the Herald and became a freelance writer. The Herald hired him to write business features and speeches for the Daily Herald Business Conferences and Awards presentations.
McDill also writes a monthly parenting column for the Herald’s Suburban Parent magazine.
McDill is the father of four children, and an active fan of soccer, Jimmy Buffett and all things Disney.