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Trafficking in Cuban Ballplayers: A Look at Florida’s New Law

Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law on Friday that gives local governments access to $13 million annually in funding for the construction or renovation of a professional sports facility. To be eligible, the sports facility must be owned and operated by a local government or owned by a private entity that’s located on land owned by a local government.

Under the general terms of the new law, the Tampa Bay Rays would be eligible as a beneficiary of the new funding stream, as Tropicana Field is owned by the City of St. Petersburg. Same for the Miami Marlins, which play in a ballpark built largely with Miami-Dade County bonds. Then there are the nine teams that play in spring training facilities in Florida (Phillies, Blue Jays, Astros, Rigers, Rays, Pirates, Orioles, Mets and Twins) and the 14 minor league teams in Florida that play in a ballpark owned by — or on land owned by — the local government.

But an amendment to the bill added as it made its way through the Florida legislature carves out facilities used by MLB and MiLB franchises unless and until MLB changes its rules to permit Cuban ballplayers to sign as free agents if they defect from Cuba directly to the United States. Under current rules, MLB requires players to defect and establish residency in a non-U.S. country before coming to the United States to sign as a free agent.

In recent years, we’ve learned of the harrowing journeys taken by Cuban ballplayers to leave the island nation with the hopes of signing with an MLB team. The players and their families are at the mercy of smugglers and traffickers who provide transport from Cuba to a non-US landing spot; in exchange, the smugglers and traffickers often demand a substantial percentage of the player’s first MLB contract, if not his second. The fear and intimidation starts before the player leaves the island and continues well past the time he arrives in the major leagues.

ESPN The Magazine detailed Yasiel Puig‘s trafficking story in April. The San Francisco Chronicle had Yoenis Cespdes’ saga just a month before. Jonah Keri explored these developments, and the exploding pipe line of Cuban players, last week at Grantland.

In response to an inquiry to the Commissioner’s Office about the new Florida law, an MLB spokesman provided the following statement:

MLB is extremely concerned about the role of human traffickers in assisting Cuban baseball players to leave the country.  While the sponsors of the bill in Florida blame MLB policies for the role of human smugglers, they do not provide any support for their premise that Cuban players must rely on traffickers to defect to countries other than the U.S. such as Mexico or the Dominican Republic, but would not need the assistance of traffickers to reach U.S. soil.  However, we will meet with the Players Association to determine whether changes can be made to our international signing rules to reduce or eliminate the reliance of Cuban players on criminal organizations when leaving Cuba.  We also intend to speak to the U.S. State Department about actions that the U.S. government can take to reduce or eliminate the trafficking of Cuban baseball players.  We hope that the legislators in Florida will do the same.

MLB’s statement is headed in the right direction. But the league is a bit disingenuous in suggesting the incentives for smugglers and ballplayers are the same whether the player goes from Cuba to a third country and then to the U.S., or takes a direct journey from Cuba to the U.S.. The difference is in dollars. Lots and lots of dollars.

A Cuban ballplayer who establishes residency in the Dominican Republic, for example, can then as a free agent with any MLB team. But one who seeks asylum in the United States and then declares his intent to play in the majors is subject to the amateur draft, including the slot values and draft bonus pools imposed in the latest collective bargaining agreement. The risks of defecting to the U.S. may be lower but so is the the financial payoff.

Just in the last two years, Yasiel Puig signed a 7-year, $42 million contract with the Dodgers; Jose Abreu inked a 6-year, $68 million with the White Sox and Yoenis Cespedes agreed to a 4-year, $36 million contract with the Athletics. All played in the Cuban leagues. All left Cuba as adults, under dire conditions, and established residency in a third country before signing as a free agent. The Marlins’ Jose Fernandez arrived in the U.S. when he was just 15 — also after a dangerous journey from Cuba. Since he was already a U.S. resident, he was subject to the draft. He’s making $635,000 this year (and rehabbing from Tommy John surgery) and will have to wait at least four more years to sign his first free-agent contract.

The financial disparity fuels the efforts of ballplayers to take the indirect route, and provides fertile ground for the traffickers to pounce. That’s why the Florida law seeks to treat the Cuban ballplayers who come directly to the U.S. on par with those who are trafficked through a third country. The new law also requires MLB to assist the Florida attorney general to identify human smugglers living in or doing business in Florida.

Florida has the largest population of Cuban-Americans in the U.S.  Twenty-four of the top 25 U.S. cities with the largest Cuban presence are in the Miami area. Yet it was a state senator from the Tampa Bay area — Jack Latvala — who introduced the amendment relating to MLB and Cuban ballplayers. That’s an interesting twist given the Rays’ never-ending effort to get out from under it’s lease agreement with City of St. Petersburg so that it can move to a new ballpark, preferably in Tampa. Latvala represents Florida’s 20th senatorial district, which covers the north half of Pinellas County. St. Petersburg is in the 22nd senatorial district, in the south half of Pinellas County. I reached out to Senator Latvala’s office for comment on his involvement with Cuban ballplayer provision but received no response.

The Major League Baseball Players Association also declined to comment.

Florida’s goal is have the Florida-based MLB and MiLB teams pressure the league to make changes in how it treats Cuban ballplayers. But the sports facility funding bill makes so little money available on a team-by-team basis, it’s unlikely to have anything other than a public relations effect. That is, unless MLB takes the issue seriously and engages the U.S. State Department in a way that brings about meaningful change for Cuban ballplayers and their families.