MLB seeks safe, legal path for Cuban baseball players to U.S.

Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig talks to journalists in Havana, December 15, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

By Daniel Trotta HAVANA (Reuters) - Major League Baseball wants to find a safe and legal way for Cubans to reach the big leagues without the need for dangerous overseas journeys in search of riches in the American game, a top MLB official said on Tuesday. "It is the goal of our commissioner and our owners to ultimately negotiate with the Cuban Baseball Federation ... a safe and legal path for Cuban baseball players who desire to play in Major League Baseball," Dan Halem, MLB's chief legal officer, told a news conference. Halem is part of a goodwill mission to Cuba to that includes celebrated Cuban defectors such as Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig who were given special permission to return to their country despite their illegal departures from the island. The tour, which runs through Friday, also includes some of baseball's greatest stars such as Clayton Kershaw and Miguel Cabrera. Abreu and Puig each left on speedboats destined for third countries to maintain their free agent status and avoid the player draft that they would have been subject to as U.S. residents. After making less than a dollar a day in Cuba, they each signed multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts. Before creating a regulated player transfer system, the U.S. Congress would have to lift the trade embargo of Cuba or the administration of President Barack Obama would have to grant extraordinary permission for Major League Baseball to reach a deal with Cuban officials. U.S.-Cuban relations have improved since Obama set a new course a year ago that led to the restoration of diplomatic ties. But so far the policy has emphasized commerce only with Cuba's nascent private sector, steering away from the state. Absent normal relations, Cuban players are enticed by all manner of freelance talent scouts and player agents who lure them to defect. When they do, Cuba bans them from the ultimate glory in the Caribbean country: playing for the national team. When Puig left Cuba in 2012, he 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. "The current situation ... is not acceptable," Halem said. "We are going to try very hard to fix it but it's going to require ... the cooperation of two governments and certainly the assistance the Cuban Baseball Federation and INDER (the Cuban sports institute.)" (Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Nelson Acosta; Editing by David Gregorio)