“People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. Its been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, its a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that was good, and could be again.” —Terrance Mann, Field of Dreams

James Earl Jones’s character in Field of Dreams, Terrance Mann, spoke nostalgically about America’s relationship with its national past time. While America may have “rolled by like an army of steamrollers,” being “rebuilt and erased again,” the same cannot be said for another baseball-crazed nation, Cuba. Things have not changed much in Cuba since the American trade embargo was initiated in 1959. And that includes baseball.

However, President Obama is using baseball as a means of reopening diplomatic relations with the Cuban people. Last month, the President allowed Major League Baseball to hold a Spring Training exhibition game in Havanna, featuring the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays. If not for the executive blessing, such a game would be barred by the trade embargo. President Obama went a step beyond simply allowing the game to take place, however—he attended it with his family.

The MLB, for their part, is hoping that the famous line from Field of Dreams holds true again: if you build it, they will come. In this context, they’re hoping that rebuilding the Cuban-American trade relationship allows Cuban baseball players to come to the United States to join big league clubs. As it stands today, the embargo means that baseball teams cannot sign players directly out of Cuba because that would require interaction with the Cuban government. Instead, the 32 current MLB players born in Cuba have defected from their home, often resorting to human trafficking and dangerous ocean-crossings. Dodger’s left fielder Yasiel Puig was subjected to continuing threats from the human traffickers who smuggled him through Mexico in 2012.

In a rare intersection between diplomacy, international trade, and sports law, the MLB’s Chief Legal Officer, Dan Halem, has asked for a special permit allowing pro teams to sign players who are still in Cuba. The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has the authority to effectively exempt the MLB from the embargo. Players signed through this process would likely have to pay a percentage of their salary to the Cuban government and also pay taxes to both countries. If approved by OFAC, this would be a major—even if only symbolic—step toward normalizing relations with Cuba.

Opponents of the OFAC permit point to Cuba’s history of human rights violations and also wonder why baseball should be the exception to a national embargo. Perhaps worth noting, baseball is already inexplicably exempted from federal antitrust laws, an luxury that no other professional sports league enjoys. See Federal Baseball Club v. National League, 259 U.S. 200 (1922).

OFAC has yet to take an official stance on the special permit application, but President Obama’s attendance at the exhibition game should be a welcome signal to MLB teams. Until then, Americans will have to continue smuggling two major Cuban imports: cigars and middle infielders.

Travis Gray


Comments are closed.