- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2002

A transaction that has received little fanfare could have big implications for international baseball, from Japan to the United States and an island about 90 miles away from Key West.

One of the greatest players in the history of Cuban baseball, third baseman Omar Linares, has signed to play for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan for the second half of their season. Baseball sources said another standout Cuban star, first baseman Orestes Kindelan, also signed a contract with another Japanese team.

They did so without defecting, and this is a major development in the ever-changing world of international sports because it marks the first time the Cuban government has given its players permission to sign a contract to play professionally in another country, according to press reports out of Japan.

There have been other Cuban players who have played in other countries, including Japan. But those were under exchange programs between the two countries, trading services for goods. According to reports, these are the first major Cuban stars to be given "special permission" to sign a contract to play elsewhere, and it would appear that professional baseball in Japan, which has been losing its stars to major league teams, is looking to Cuba to fill the void.

Linares is a baseball legend in Cuba, just like Martin Dihigo and other greats who played on the island. He has more than 400 career home runs and 2,000 hits, but the only time American fans have gotten a chance to see him is when the Cuban national team played in the Olympics (he hit three home runs in Cuba's gold medal win over Japan in the 1996 Games in Atlanta) and then the historic games against the Orioles three years ago.

He has had a number of offers to play major league baseball, including multimillion dollar pitches from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. But he has turned all of them down, refusing to leave Cuba. Now he will get a chance to play professionally.

"For a long time, I've thought about joining a big league team and learning about what it takes to play at a high level," Linares told reporters through an interpreter. "But unfortunately, this kind of agreement hadn't been in place."

Linares will receive $4,000 a month, according to Japanese news reports, and it's unclear how much of that he will actually be able to keep. It's likely that the Cuban government, or sports agency, will get a significant chunk of that salary, which is no different than the deal that Yao Ming has as the No.1 pick of the Houston Rockets in the NBA. He will only see about 50 percent of his earnings, with the rest going to the Chinese government.

The Linares agreement in Japan would seem to open the door for Major League Baseball to do a similar deal to what the NBA has done with Yao Ming. The difference is that the United States does business with China. We don't do business with Cuba, and it's ironic that this breakthrough comes in Cuban baseball at the same time that the American economic embargo of Cuba has become a hot topic again in Congress. Unless something changes on the political front, there won't be any landmark agreements between American baseball teams and Cuban players like the ones in Japan.

"We have not been approached about any such deals, nor could we approach anyone about doing something like that, since federal laws prohibit us from doing business with Cuba," said MLB spokesman Vince Wladika.

One member of Congress has been trying to change that: New York Democrat Jose E. Serrano, who, with the Yao Ming deal in the forefront of the sports world last month, has revived a bill he proposed several years ago called the Baseball Diplomacy Act.

"This would allow players to play major league baseball without having to renounce their Cuban citizenship and renounce [Fidel] Castro," Serrano said. "They could play major league baseball and still go back home to Cuba.

"Omar never wanted to leave Cuba. That is why he didn't take all those offers to defect. He didn't want to leave his homeland. Under my bill, he could have played here and gone back home. But there is opposition to it because it is Cuba. Why China and not Cuba?"

Serrano knows why. The revolution may have fizzled in Cuba but not here. It is every bit as politically volatile as it always has been, and despite Serrano's proposal, it's doubtful that there will be any such Yao Ming deals involving Cuban players and Major League Baseball any time soon.

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