When you see the petty and needlessly cruel rule change.
Photo: Justin Berl (Getty Images)

For decades, every Cuban-born player in Major League Baseball arrived in the United States only at the end of a long and dangerous extralegal process. That process was, by its nature, run exclusively by and mostly for the benefit of an international collection of creeps, from violent criminal gangs to lawyers who knew what questions not to ask. All of which is a strange thing to remember when, say, watching José Abreu line an unremarkable two-out single to right—that man had to eat a fake Haitian passport on a flight to the United States. Yasiel Puig was held hostage at a dingy hotel in Mexico by smugglers while they attempted to sell him to the highest bidder, and then he was kidnapped from those smugglers by other criminals, and then some time later he was traded by the Dodgers to the Reds in an offseason salary dump to create room for the Dodgers to sign A.J. Pollock. Even as these players slip over time into the background noise of baseball, the fact of all this is there. “There is only one way for a Cuban player to get to the U.S.” a lawyer for one of the men who smuggled Abreu out of Cuba said in 2017. “They have to escape.”

It’s just one of those fucked-up things. A deal made last year between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation that would allow Cuban players to come to the United States without first escaping from the island and formally defecting was designed to address it. On Monday, the Trump State Department rejected it.

Business is business, and so there was a great deal of sketchy shit inherent even in the deal between MLB and FCB that sought to drag this scuzzy process aboveboard. But where the men who smuggled Abreu into the United States wanted 25 percent of his future earnings, the deal between MLB and FCB simply worked out a two-tiered system for Cuban players that was modeled on the posting system that MLB has with Japan’s NPB. Many of the immigration-related hoops that slowed the process down in the past were still in effect, but the sinister shit had been mitigated—Cuban players would still have to apply for U.S. work visas from a third foreign country, but they would no longer require the services of gangsters and smugglers to get there. FCB teams would receive a fee from MLB teams for the players they sold to the Majors, and Cuban nationals would pay Cuban income taxes on their MLB earnings. They would also, crucially, be able to return to their home country.

None of it was perfect—for instance, the pact was designed to make it less simple and appealing for younger players to leave Cuba—but the idea was that it was a start, and a way for MLB to, as Commissioner Rob Manfred put it, “end the trafficking of baseball players from Cuba by criminal organizations by creating a safe and legal alternative.” It wasn’t so much a breakthrough as it was an attempt to bring the marketplace for Cuban baseball players more in line with the ordinary exploitations of the international baseball economy—to take a gray market run by dangerous criminals and brighten it to a respectable off-white one run by the usual quants and lawyers. This isn’t to say that the wrong people wouldn’t continue collecting rent off the talents of others, but there would at least in theory be less in the way of passport-eating.

Anyway, all of this was subject to State Department approval, and on Monday—days after the FCB released a list of 34 young players that would be allowed to sign with MLB teams—the Trump State Department announced that it did not approve of the deal. This was always a possibility, both because of specific longstanding conservative grievances with Cuba—Florida Senator Marco Rubio called the deal “both illegal and immoral” after it was announced—and because of the general atavistic grievance and hostility that defines the current administration. The stated issues with the deal were amorphous, with Rubio targeting the provisions requiring teams to pay fees to FCB teams and requiring Cuban citizens to pay Cuban income taxes on their MLB salaries. “The regime will impose a new income tax on the players earnings,” Rubio tweeted, “even though the income is being earned by playing in the U.S.”

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The Trump administration’s arguments against the deal were, characteristically, a lot harder to parse—some stuff about Cuba aiding Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, a rephrasing of Rubio’s grave concerns about those Cuban taxes. In a statement the administration issued to the Washington Post on Monday, a new argument emerged: the fees paid by MLB teams to FCB ones “amounted to ‘human trafficking’ by the Cuban government.”

Of all the arguments to make against this agreement, that’s a curious one. “Literally the only reason we are doing this agreement is to try to end the trafficking of Cuban players,” MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem said back in 2018. While that is certainly neither literally nor figuratively the only reason for the agreement, removing criminal gangs from the process—Puig’s escape from Cuba was engineered in part by people connected to Los Zetas, a notoriously brutal Mexican gang—was a nice knock-on effect to what was mostly a business and public-relations decision by Major League Baseball. The idea that the deal amounted to human trafficking by Cuba’s government is, in fact, just about the worst and weirdest argument that could be made against it, especially considering that quite literally the only beneficiaries of rescinding the deal are the actual human traffickers who run and profit from the old system. That it doesn’t matter—that none of it matters, and that a decision that puts vulnerable people back into the hands of international criminal gangs was made on some combination of rancid principle and pure grouchy whim—is just another one of those fucked-up things.