Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed heightened confidence that Major League Baseball will stage an exhibition game in Cuba next spring, indicating to Brian Costa of the Wall Street Journal that major league teams were likely to take the field on the island in 2016. Manfred has indicated previously that the league was eyeing such an endeavor, but said today that recent discussions with the U.S. government had lent additional optimism to that possibility.
Baseball is still feeling its way through recent changes in the United States’ diplomatic posture towards Cuba, the small island that produces some of the game’s best ballplayers. One immediate impact, of course, was that several notable players seeking to sign with big league teams — Yoan Moncada and Hector Olivera, most prominently — were able to achieve clearance much more quickly than had been the case. But the longer-term implications and strategies are still being sorted out, and remain highly dependent upon broader forces.
“The combination of [the U.S. government’s] input and where we are in our calendar for 2015 makes the most likely point in time to be spring training of 2016,” said Manfred. “It’s not a three-day exercise to play a meaningful exhibition game in Cuba. You need a little lead time to get that done, to put everything together, to be able to broadcast it in the way that it deserves.”
That level of effort makes sense, the new commissioner indicated, because the Cuban market offers significant appeal to the league. “It’s a great source of talent,” Manfred said. “We’ve seen the level of interest that quality Cuban players have generated among major-league clubs. And secondly, Cuba is a country where baseball is part of the culture, like it is here in the United States, and we love markets like that.”
Manfred made clear that he expects to follow the government’s lead on engagement, calling it “an honor” to “play a role in helping the United States government effectuate a change in policy.” An exhibition game (or games) would constitute an important and highly symbolic step both for the game and for the larger political relationship.
As Manfred hinted, there are many areas that will call for delicate handling. He declined to comment on whether and how player movement from Cuba to the majors would be handling, noting that he is likely “to have a negotiation on this topic at some point.” The commissioner said recently that he likes the idea of “a single modality of entry” for players and said he believes an international draft process will eventually be implemented. Whether and how Cuba would be incorporated into that system will surely be a matter of keen interest not only for teams but also the Cuban government.