SPORTS

Up next for baseball? Talk of spring training games in Cuba stirs excitement and worry

Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig points out his shot after hitting a ball during a spring training baseball workout Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig points out his shot after hitting a ball during a spring training baseball workout Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/John Locher)

If there is one thing that the United States and Cuba can agree on, as the two countries try to restore relations that have been battered by more than 50 years of political animosity, is the love of baseball and the special place it holds in both cultures.

Keeping this in mind, Major League Baseball's Players Association president Tony Clark hinted late last week that Cuba could host spring training games in the near future – which would be the first time professional MLB teams have played on the island since March 1999 when the Baltimore Orioles visited Havana for an exhibition game against the Cuban national team.

Observers see the possibility of big league teams playing on the island as an impetus for greater integration between U.S. and Cuba and a move that could have both positive and negative effects on the sport in the Caribbean nation.

"It's in the best interest of both parties to figure out how to make normalization work," Rob Ruck, a professor of sport history at the University of Pittsburgh told Fox News Latino. "The change will not be sudden, but a spring training game is a win-win situation for Cuba and the MLB."

The MLBPA's Clark warned that the planning was still in its early stages and that, while there were conversations about Cuba hosting games this spring, there wasn't enough time to finalize details, he seemed hopeful about the possibility that in the future spring MLB squads will take the field in Cuba.

"We weren't able to put those pieces in play this go-around," Clark said following his annual union meeting with the Cleveland Indians. "It is conceivable somewhere down the road that there may be a spring training game played in Cuba, but it's hard to tell when at this point in time."

I think what's great is that you look around any locker room now and you appreciate how international and how global our game is.

- Tony Clark, Major League Baseball's Players Association president

Clark's statement came just two months after President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would seek to normalize relations between the two countries and a day after officials from both countries spoke positively about fulfilling the promise made by Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro to reopen embassies in each other's capitals.  

The U.S. even held out hope of clinching a deal in time for April's summit of North and South American leaders, which Obama and Castro are expected to attend.

"We made meaningful progress," Roberta Jacobson, the State Department's senior envoy to Latin America, told reporters, calling the negotiations "open, honest and sometimes challenging, but always respectful."

The history of baseball in Cuba – by far the most popular sport on the island – has always been intertwined with the politics between the two countries.

The sport came to the island in the 1860s, just as baseball began to professionalize in the U.S. 

The first Cuban-born ballplayer in the big leagues was Esteban Bellán, a light-hitting infielder for the 1871 Troy (N.Y.) Haymakers of the old National Association.

By the beginning of the 20th century, a number of Cuban players had advanced to the level of their North American peers, although most of them were prevented from playing in the pre-integration major leagues. Before the 1940s, only 22 Cuban-born players made it to the big leagues, and only two (pitcher Dolf Luque and catcher Mike Gonzalez) sustained long big-league careers.

In 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers came to Havana for spring training because Jackie Robinson, who would that year become the first African-American to play in the majors, faced harassment from racist in Florida. 

Integration came slowly, and it wasn't until 1959 that the last big-league franchise fielded a black player. Throughout those years, a slew of MLB teams held spring training and exhibition matches in Cuba.

"Here was the only place in the world that had multi-racial, international play," Ruck said.

The cultural – and player – exchange clamped shut in 1961, when the the U.S. imposed a trade embargo on the island, and since then the two countries have developed powerhouse baseball talents more or less in isolation from each other.

During his long tenure in power, Fidel Castro – a former aspiring baseball player himself – reveled in the Cuban national team's success in international competitions, and their victories over U.S. squads most particularly.

The MLB, however, has benefitted from many of Cuba's top players defecting and joining U.S. teams. Since the start of the embargo, there have been more than 80 ballplayers who have abandoned the island to pursue big-league careers.

Last season 19 players from Cuba appeared on major league rosters—a group that includes stars like Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu and José Fernández—at the beginning of spring training. This number, however, pales in comparison to the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, which accounted for 83 and 59 players respectively.

"I think what's great is that you look around any locker room now, and you appreciate how international and how global our game is," Clark said. "It seems like every Cuban player who comes over here is contributing significantly to our game and it's beneficial for everyone. There is intrigue. There is interest. I'm very interested to see what happens here," he added.

The thaw in relations was on display when the prospect Yoan Moncada was allowed to leave Cuba by the communist regime in order to establish residency in Guatemala. Last month, he signed with the Boston Red Sox after a change in U.S. policy allowed him to join the team without having to obtain a specific unblocking license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Cuban players fleeing to the MLB has traditionally been a concern for officials in Havana, who fret about the diminishment of Cuba's own league. Another concern is that Cuba could come to resemble, in baseball terms, the Dominican Republic – which currently has academies for all 32 MLB teams but also has dealt with widespread corruption, steroid use and the economic exploitation of young players.

"The MLB wants to have the same access to Cuban players as it does to those in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela," Ruck said. "The question for Cuba is are they willing to allow the kind of wild west atmosphere that has occurred in the D.R.?"

The Associated Press contributed to this report.