By Forest Stulting, Sports Editor
When you think of Cuba, what comes to mind? Fidel Castro? Communism? What about baseball? As momentous as President Obama’s visit was for Cuban and American relations on a broader scale, this visit has also impacted the game of baseball as well.
In Havana, Cuba, March 22, 2016, the Tampa Bay Rays became the first MLB team to play on Cuban soil since the Baltimore Orioles in 1999. But more importantly, Rays outfielder Dayron Varona became the first Cuban player to defect and return to play in his home country.
Born in Havana, Varona defected from Cuba three years ago. Since defecting, the only family member he has seen he has left has been his mom who accompanied him on the boat ride out of the country.
Defecting from Cuba has been a major league problem for baseball. Since 1959, there have been 116 Cubans that have played in MLB. Others have only reached the minors but some never get a chance at showing their talent in the states.
Another definition for the term “defecting” is essentially human trafficking. The players who want to leave Cuba have to find a way to sneak into another country besides the United States so they can complete the necessary paperwork to enter into the U.S. legally.
This involves paying off multiple people to get out of Cuba and into another country safely plus going through the right channels to get a work visa to enter the U.S. The process can be lengthy and very dangerous for the players.
It can take months for the process of attaining a work visa to be completed because of various roadblocks. For instance, some middleman trying to help the Cuban players get a work visa have been reported of holding the players work visa hostage by demanding more money for their services before completing the paperwork.
Another problem with Cuban players defecting is that it is nearly impossible for them to see their families back home in Cuba.
Eduardo Perez is the son of MLB Hall of Famer Tony Perez, a Cuban natinal. Tony played 23 seasons in MLB between 1964-86 and was one of the first great Cuban players in the game.
But it did not come without a price. Neither Tony nor Eduardo, who was born in Cincinnati, has had many chances to see part of their family that lives in Cuba for quite some time.
All that changed March 22 in Havana. Eduardo, who now works for ESPN as a baseball broadcaster after having a 13-year career from 1993-2006, travelled to Cuba with ESPN to broadcast the game and was able to see his family for the first time in 24 years.
These are very pressing issues for MLB and Cuban players who want to showcase their skills at the highest level of baseball in the world.
Hopefully this visit will help seal a tighter bond to not only make it safer, but to allow Cubans to return to their home country without fear of persecution