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After 50 Years, Cuba Says Its Baseball Players Can Go Abroad

A player for Havana's Industriales baseball team winds up to throw a ball during a training session in Havana on Sept. 27. Cuba recently lifted a ban on its athletes' signing contracts to play overseas professionally. (AP)

Baseball season is over in the United States, but it's just getting started in Cuba. It's the first season since Communist authorities lifted a 50-year-old ban on players' signing professional contracts abroad.

The move could bring even more Cuban defections to the U.S. major leagues, but fans on the island aren't booing the change.

Going to a baseball game at Havana's Latin American stadium is a little different from the typical experience in the U.S.

There's no beer for sale, and no nachos or Cracker Jacks either. Fans with air horns and cowbells sip rum from soda bottles and smoke cigarettes in the concrete bleachers.

In place of a Jumbotron or the Kiss Cam, there are socialist slogans in huge letters above the outfield, declaring "Cuba is a country of champions" and its athletes "a victory of the Revolution."

One thing that does compare is the talent on the field.

Yulieski Gourriel, the star third baseman for Havana's Industriales, could probably sign a U.S. big league contract tomorrow for tens of millions. In Cuba, top players are lucky to earn $100 a month.

But after spending decades trying to block them from leaving, Cuba is betting its biggest stars will return home if allowed to spend part of the year earning real money in places like Mexico or Japan.

It's a huge change, but it also creates an easy way to defect to the United States, where salaries are much higher. However, the U.S. trade embargo means Cuban players and their earnings can't legally return. Still, Industriales fan Yolexi Ibañez says he's not worried about a talent drain from the island.

"Ballplayers grow like the grass here," Ibañez says. "Some will leave, but I think others will return home just like they do in Venezuela, Mexico or the Dominican Republic, and put on the uniforms of their national teams."

In the Fidel Castro school of sports, a country's athletes should remain amateurs, playing for national pride — not the highest-paying employer. But that view is fading here along with the 87-year-old retired comandante, and one of his sons, baseball official Antonio Castro, is pushing the changes.

Other young Cubans at the stadium like Silvia Blanco say they want to see their players competing against the best in the world.

"That's what motivates them," Blanco says, "and in turn makes them better players."

The streets are often the best place for baseball commentary in Cuba, especially a spot known as the Hot Corner.

It's not a corner per se, but a meeting place in Havana's Central Park where men gather each day to argue heatedly about baseball. One of the regular combatants here, Jesus Sosa, says there are few doubts that more Cubans will end up leaving for bigger pay and the chance to play at the game's highest level in the U.S.

"That's where the best baseball is played," Sosa says. "Maybe more Cubans can now play in Mexico or Japan, but the top players from those leagues also go to the United States."

For decades, fans in Cuba had virtually no access to information about players who defected. But now many Cubans follow Major League Baseball through the Internet or pirated satellite TV. The government has also relented, showing World Series games on state television this year for the first time.

Rey Estrada watched the whole thing and says Cuban fans will soon be like Dominicans or Venezuelans, rooting for their players even when they no longer compete at home.

"In the end, we all feel proud," Estrada says, "even those who criticize the players for leaving."

Cubans have continued to defect at a record pace, despite the government's new opening. After fleeing to Haiti over the summer, slugger Jose Abreu signed with the Chicago White Sox last month for six years and $68 million. It's the biggest contract yet for a Cuban player.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Not much luck for the St. Louis Cardinal when they lost to the Boston Red Sox this year. That World Series, that whole season a fading memory. But in Cuba, baseball season is just getting started. It's the first season since communist authorities lifted a 50-year-old ban on players signing professional contracts abroad. This means even more Cubans could defect to the United States to play. Yet fans on the island are not booing the change.

Here's Nick Miroff from Havana.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: Going to a baseball game at Havana's Latin American stadium is a little different.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MIROFF: There's no beer for sale. And no nachos or Cracker Jacks either. Fans with air horns and cow bells sip rum from soda bottles and smoke cigarettes in the cement bleachers. In place of a Jumbotron or the Kiss Cam, there are socialist slogans in huge letters above the outfield, declaring Cuba is a country of champions and its athletes a victory of the revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF P.A. SYSTEM)

MIROFF: One thing that does compare is the talent on the field. Yulieski Gourriel, the star third baseman for Havana's Industriales, could probably sign a big league contract tomorrow for tens of millions. Here top players are lucky to earn $100 a month. But after spending decades trying to block them from leaving, Cuba is betting its biggest stars will return home if allowed to spend part of the year earning real money in places like Mexico or Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

MIROFF: It's a huge change here, but it also creates an easy way to defect to the United States, where salaries are much higher but the U.S. trade embargo means Cuban players and their earnings can't legally return. Still, Industriales fan Yolexi Ibanez says he's not worried about a talent drain from the island.

YOLEXI IBANEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Ballplayers grow like the grass here, Ibanez said. Some will leave, but I think others will return home just like they do in Venezuela, Mexico or the Dominican Republic, and put on the uniforms of their national teams.

In the Fidel Castro school of sports, a country's athletes should remain amateurs, playing for national pride, not the highest-paying customer. But that view is fading here along with the 87-year-old retired commandante, and one of his sons, baseball official Antonio Castro, is pushing the changes.

Other young Cubans at the stadium, like Silvia Blanco, say they want to see their players competing against the best in the world.

SILVIA BLANCO: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: That's what motivates them, Blanco said, and in turn makes them better players.

The streets are often the best place for baseball commentary in Cuba, and especially a spot known as the Hot Corner.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

MIROFF: It's not a corner per se, but a meeting place in Havana's Central Park, where men gather each day to argue heatedly about baseball. One of the regular combatants here, Jesus Sosa, said there are few doubts that more Cubans will end up leaving for bigger pay and the chance to play at the game's highest level in the U.S.

JESUS SOSA: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: That's where the best baseball is played, Sosa said. Maybe more Cubans can now play in Mexico or Japan, but the top players from those leagues also go to the United States.

For decades, fans here had virtually no access to information about players who defected. But now many Cubans follow Major League baseball through the Internet or pirated satellite TV. The government has also relented, showing World Series games on state television this year for the first time.

Rey Estrada watched the whole thing, and said Cuban fans will soon be like Dominicans or Venezuelans, rooting for their players even when they no longer compete at home.

REY ESTRADA: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: In the end we all feel proud, Estrada said, even those who criticize the players for leaving.

ESTRADA: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Cubans have continued to defect at a record pace, despite the government's new opening. After fleeing to Haiti over the summer, slugger Jose Abreu signed with the Chicago White Sox last month for six years and $68 million. It's the biggest contract yet for a Cuban player.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Love being able to think about baseball in late November.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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