- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2016

Orestes Destrade escaped Cuba with his family in 1968, when he was 6 years old. The circumstances of his blight have remained so ingrained in his memory that Destrade has vowed not to return to his native country until it becomes more free.

“It won’t happen overnight,” said Destrade, a major-leaguer-turned-TV analyst whose father returned to Cuba to rescue several family members in the summer-long Mariel Boatlift saga in 1980. “That regime won’t allow it to happen overnight. It’s going to be a work in progress, but I’m glad that there is work being truly [done].”

Major League Baseball is returning to Cuba for the second time in four months next week as President Obama pushes for normalizing ties to the communist country. It’s eager to find a way to end the trafficking of Cuban players, often through other Latin American countries, in order for them to sign with teams.

“That’s our primary short-term goal, obviously, because given the information that’s coming out in the past two years regarding trafficking, our commissioner is very concerned about that issue and wanting to take immediate steps to normalize the flow of players,” said Dan Halem, MLB’s chief legal officer, who will be part of the delegation in Havana next week.

The high-point of the trip will be an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team on Tuesday — the first involving a major-league team in Cuba since the Baltimore Orioles traveled there in 1999.

MLB embarked upon a goodwill tour of Cuba in mid-December, when Yasiel Puig, Brayan Pena and Jose Abreu, Cuban-born players who defected in recent years, joined other players and high-ranking baseball officials in hosting youth clinics and touring Havana.

It comes at a time when the Obama administration is attempting to broaden the countries’ relationships, but also when the plight of Cuban players couldn’t be greater.

Just last month, Bart Hernandez, a licensed player agent, was arrested after he was indicted by a federal grand jury on human trafficking charges for his role in bringing Seattle Mariners outfielder Leonys Martin into the U.S. in 2010. Martin, then 22, was held captive in Mexico by two men for several months until Hernandez and his agency negotiated what became a five-year, $15.5 million contract with the Texas Rangers.

Martin’s story is similar to that of Puig, who tried to leave Cuba for Mexico on several occasions before finally succeeding in 2011. He signed a seven-year, $42 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012 and has spent considerable time fighting those who claim he owes them money for facilitating his arrival through the U.S. court system.

Several factors have contributed to the number of players who have left Cuba in recent years — the money chief among them. Although the U.S. government can fast-track citizenship for Cubans who arrive in the country seeking asylum, an overwhelming majority of Cuban players do not head directly to the U.S. because they would be subject to the MLB draft, thereby binding them to one team and a rigid salary structure.

Thus, those players choose to establish residency in places such as Mexico or the Dominican Republic, where they can theoretically engage in a bidding war among several major-league teams and sign a contract that is vastly superior to what an American prospect would receive.

Left out of those negotiations is the Cuban government, which believes it should be compensated for developing players through its domestic league. Since the trade embargo blocks corporations and citizens from doing business in Cuba, and prevents those earning money in the U.S. to return to Cuba to spend it, the country never benefits from the process.

The Obama administration moved to relax part of that restriction on Tuesday, when it announced that Cuban citizens — specifically athletes and performers — will be allowed to earn salaries in the U.S. as long as they’re not subject to a regulatory tax in Cuba. The Cuban government, which has been slow to react to many of the changes the White House has moved to enact over the past two years, has not yet said whether it would consent to those terms.

Peter Bjarkman, a historian whose book, “Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story,” will be released on May 5, theorized that removing those restrictions won’t do much to stop the defections. In some ways, he believes MLB is complicit in players’ safety, given that teams continue to sign players knowing that they’re likely arriving under suspicious circumstances.

“The thing that’s going to slow down the defections right now, really, is that the best young prospects have already left,” said Bjarkman, who said he has made over 50 trips to Cuba, including three in 2015. “Right now, at least for a period of time, I don’t know how much more talent there is there that would be enticing off the island. There’s still a handful of players, but there aren’t dozens like there were a year or two ago.”

By Bjarkman’s count, 369 players defected from Cuba in pursuit of a major-league career from 1980 through 2015, including 94 who did so just last year. Only a fraction of those players have appeared in a major-league game, and even fewer have carved out respectable careers. For every Livan Hernandez, a pitcher who played for 10 teams over 17 seasons, including parts of five with the Washington Nationals, there are dozens of others who never signed a professional contract.

Unlike Martin and Puig, not all of them have withstood harrowing journeys across the Caribbean. In 1991, pitcher Rene Arocha walked out of Miami International Airport while on a layover and hopped into a waiting car, abandoning the national team. Aroldis Chapman, traded to the New York Yankees in December, left his hotel in the Netherlands while on a national team tour in 2009 and established residency in Andorra. Just last month, two of Cuba’s better players, brothers Yulieski and Lourdes Gourriel, left their hotel in the Dominican Republic.

Halem, MLB’s chief legal officer, said the organization has considered putting a moratorium on signing Cuban players until their legal status can be resolved. That hasn’t happened, though, because the safety of those who may be caught in limbo, as Martin was for five months, cannot be guaranteed.

“It certainly would address trafficking in the short-term,” Halem said. “In the long-term, we need a more permanent solution that wouldn’t negatively affectively individuals who have been smuggled out. We just decided it’s probably not the right way to go right now.”

Which direction all parties go will depend only in part upon this week’s trip. Several Cuban officials are expected to partake in scheduled events, but the extent of Cuban President Raul Castro’s involvement remains uncertain. It’s also unclear whether locals will be able to attend the game; the last, in 1999, was by invitation only, with the crowd at Estadio Latinoamericano consisting entirely of individuals with some connection to either nation’s government.

Destrade, who played parts of four seasons in the major leagues and had two separate stints playing in Japan, nearly returned to the country over the winter to take part in a Fox Sports documentary, “Cuba: Baseball’s Final Frontier.” He was named for an uncle who fought for the counter-revolutionaries against the Castro regime in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and was captured, but later released.

Shortly before the film crew was to depart, Destrade learned his visa was not approved by the Cuban government, preventing him from traveling. When he told his mother he wasn’t approved to go on the trip, she rejoiced — as did he.

“My feelings of it are very personal and I think there’s great reasons to go and there’s reasons for certain people not to go, and the reason to go is to try to create some real dialogue for change, period,” Destrade said. “It’s not about baseball. You use baseball, but it’s about change.”

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