On Cuba and Baseball Capitalism - Pacific Standard

On Cuba and Baseball Capitalism

After a long wait, a Cuba-to-United States baseball pipeline appears to be on the horizon. That's a good thing, right?
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A backyard baseball game under way in Cuba. (Photo: advencap/Flickr)

A backyard baseball game under way in Cuba. (Photo: advencap/Flickr)

In February of 2012, Grantland’s Jonah Keri penned a fascinating profile of Cuban batting sensation José Abreu. Back then, Abreu was putting up video game-like numbers, batting .399 one season, crushing 33 home runs through 67 games in another.

Keri also detailed the difficulty Major League Baseball scouts have in evaluating Cuban talent, a result of very limited international exposure. Scouts just don’t know, Keri explained, how Cuban players might fare against other world-class competition.

“When it comes to Abreu, scouts can’t be sure what those realities are,” Keri wrote. “And for regular schmoes like us who have little or no access to scouting information, those realities are damn near impossible to figure out.”

As the MLB prepares for the next step with its newly-communicative neighbor, clubs and pundits alike are left to speculate what the future might look like. Most can agree, though, the next José Abreu won’t have to tiptoe in through the Dominican Republic.

Abreu did of course defect to play baseball in the United States, taking a roundabout route through the Dominican Republic. And he did, of course, prove very quickly that he belongs in the MLB, earning an All-Star berth this past season.

Just how many José Abreus exist isn’t really known. Sure, most of the really good players are presumably already here. Whether through boat rides or, as Michael Lewis detailed in Vanity Fair, that old international-competition-hotel-room getaway, the MLB has been pretty successful in attracting players from a country it technically can’t interact with.

But technicalities can finally be kicked to the curb, now that the U.S. and Cuba are set to re-establish diplomatic ties. As the MLB prepares for the next step with its newly communicative neighbor, clubs and pundits alike are left to speculate what the future might look like. Most can agree, though, the next José Abreu won’t have to tiptoe in through the Dominican Republic.

THERE'S A FAMOUS QUOTE, (sort of) by Walt Whitman about this country's oldest professional sport: “I see great things in baseball,” he says, “It’s our game—the American game.” It’s an honest, wide-eyed assessment, later popularized in the 1988 film Bull Durham. Whitman was specifically talking about baseball in the United States, of course. But, 126 years later, that sentiment doesn’t just apply to the U.S. (if at all). The same goes for Cuba, too.

First introduced in 1878, baseball has long been Cuba's de facto sport. Even as its popularity has waned in recent years—partly a result of top talent defecting to the U.S.—it's still by far Cuba's most prevalent pastime. This is, after all, the country that won every Baseball World Cup from 1984 to 2005. With a deep talent pool and a tight travel restriction policy, Cuban athletes have been among the MLB's most prized. That’s why Abreu netted $68 million from the Chicago White Sox before ever stepping up to an MLB mound.

But then there's the system itself. A 2005 study by University of Washington economics professor Katie Baird showed that Cuba’s state-run baseball system—a series of amateur leagues, really, where a player's team is decided by wherever he lives—routinely takes advantage of its players, while actually offering fans less competitive teams than its U.S. counterpart. Baird’s research showed that Cuban’s “pro” players make $15 a month, while earning just 20 cents out of every dollar they make on foreign contracts in places like Japan and Mexico.

Before the 1994-95 MLB strike, 28 percent of the league was African-American, compared to just eight percent Latino. Nowadays, that number has basically flipped.

That’s exploitation, Baird wrote, and it’s costing Cuba its best players, who have extra incentive to defect to places like the U.S. One outcome from all of this—and also stemming from Cuba’s “play for your hometown” mandate—is that Cuban leagues’ talent is very unevenly distributed, making for lopsided win/loss records, and inferior play overall. (Baird did find a greater competitive balance throughout the Cuban leagues in more recent years, but she thinks that might stem from U.S. defections and "early retirements.") Going by Baird's research, it seems reasonable to expect most, if not all, Cuban baseball players to opt into the MLB.

ONE WOULD EXPECT THE MLB to be happy; it’s been pushing for a Cuban-to-MLB pipeline as recently as 2007. In fact, the MLB's official website is already abuzz with stats on all these new prospects. But the underlying economics point to a potentially grimmer future, at least, for the players.

Before the 1994-95 MLB strike, 28 percent of the league was African-American, compared to just eight percent Latino. Nowadays, that number has basically flipped. According to one expert, that’s in large part because most Latino immigrants—who, by MLB rules, can’t declare for the draft—have little bargaining power, and are themselves therefore a bargain for clubs.

An influx of Cuban free agents would therefore have a negative effect on MLB players, according to John Vrooman, a sports economist at Vanderbilt University. “Unfortunately, Cuban MLB salaries will probably drop because of increased access without restrictive trade embargo,” he says. “The rapid increase in the supply of Cuban talent would exceed current MLB demand.”

Vrooman theorizes that the MLB could take one of many different approaches: It might try to internally develop talent, as it does with the Dominican Republic. “This is the cheapest alternative and players are again paid a fraction of their worth because of the market power of MLB,” Vrooman says. The MLB could also take the Japanese route, using the posting system, which Vrooman says allows MLB teams to capture “a lion’s share” of a player’s worth. Don't forget the minor league partnership, where the MLB bands together with the Cuban National Series, Cuba’s biggest amateur league, to cultivate players. In this last approach, players can look forward to a low pay, long hours, and caps on bonuses.

But not everyone can be José Abreu and get $68 million off the bat. As Vrooman puts it: “Welcome, Cuba, to a crash course in baseball capitalism.”

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