MLB, Players Association on tour of Cuba

MLB, Players Association on tour of Cuba

MIAMI -- It's been 2 1/2 years since White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu last held his young son Darielito, now 5, in his arms.

He's missed story time, the first day of kindergarten and his boy's first baseball game, living these special milestones through descriptions from his family through phone calls and photos.

But Abreu will need no messenger today. For the first time since he defected from Cuba, he will reunite with his son.

On Tuesday, Abreu, along with fellow Cubans Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers, free-agent infielder Alexei Ramirez and Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena, and an All-Star traveling party that includes Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, Seattle's Nelson Cruz and San Diego's Jon Jay, open a three-day goodwill tour of Cuba organized by Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association.

"I'm very grateful to have the opportunity Major League Baseball is giving us to go back to Cuba and represent baseball, which is one of the most important parts of life there," said Abreu, who defected in 2013. "It's been very difficult not seeing my son. He knows his father is coming, and he's so excited. I can't wait to see my boy."

MLBPA executive director Tony Clark, special advisor to the executive director Dave Winfield and MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre are also making the trip, MLB's first to the island since the Orioles played an exhibition game against the Cuban National Team in March 1999.

"It's a great opportunity to reach some kids with big league players," Torre said. "I'm curious just like everyone else is. I'm looking forward to it. Baseball is the universal language."

The goodwill tour opens with a news conference at Hotel Nacional in Havana on Tuesday, and children's clinics at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana and Estadio Victoria de Giron in Matanzas on Wednesday and Thursday. There's also a charity event in conjunction with Caritas Cubana, the U.S.-based nongovernmental provider of humanitarian, social and emergency services to the island.

"It's very emotional to go back to my country, and for them to give me the opportunity to return to my country," said Puig, who defected in 2012. "We're very excited, especially those of us who are from there. It's going to have a huge impact, to be out there, helping out the kids. That's why we're so happy to go back there, to help out the kids as much as we can."

On Monday the MLBPA, through the Major League Baseball Players Trust and MLB, announced a $200,000 grant to Caritas Cubana in recognition of this week's tour.

"This is an opportunity to learn and hopefully build some bridges using baseball as that builder and give back," Clark said. "This trip in and of itself was a desire of Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig. Cespedes won the Home Run Derby and had charity dollars to use, and they wanted to find a way to give back to Cuba, which is something that has never been done before. With that as the backdrop, I'm excited, and I'm excited for the guys. We are looking forward to the opportunity to learn and see something that I have never seen before."

It's impossible to ignore Cuba's impact on baseball. More than 100 Cuban players, including several All-Stars, have played in the Majors since the U.S. imposed sanctions in 1961. The market is now flooded, as approximately 125 prospects have left the island in the past 18 months and are seeking Major League contracts.

This goodwill visit comes as the U.S. and Cuba seek to normalize relations and as baseball searches for a safe way to get Cuban players in the Major Leagues.

The U.S. government began implementing a trade embargo in 1960 and broke off diplomatic ties with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961. In June, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S and Cuba will restore full diplomatic relations and open embassies in an effort to normalize relations.

The American flag was raised at the U.S. Embassy in Havana in August for the first time in 54 years. President Obama has said that he is interested in visiting Cuba in 2016.

Defection -- either abandoning a national team during an international tournament or late-night escapes from Cuba to ports in Haiti and Mexico -- has traditionally been the only way for players to make it to the big leagues since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Because of the embargo, any defector who wants to do business with an American company must first establish residency outside Cuba and the U.S. Players must also petition for free agency from MLB before they can enter into a contract with a Major League club.

"Major League Baseball's primary concern is proving a lawful and safe process by which Cubans who desire to play in Major League Baseball can enter MLB," said Dan Halem, MLB's chief legal officer. "One of the problems right now is that our clubs can't sign players in Cuba because of the embargo, so in order for the system to work, we need a way under the law for the clubs to sign Cuban players in Cuba and allow them to get visas to play in the United States and go back. But that's going to require an agreement between the U.S. government and the Cuban government and Major League Baseball and the Players' Association."

Cuban players who are at least 23 years old and have played in a Cuban professional league for five or more seasons are exempt from the international signing guidelines established by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, effectively making them free agents once they are eligible to sign with a big league club. Cuban players who escape the island and go directly to the U.S. are subject to the signing guidelines of the MLB Draft.

Some players are now allowed to play professionally in Mexico and Japan, with a percentage of their contract paid to the government. Several are now playing in Colombia as part of the program.

"Baseball is a common bond between the Cuban people and the American people," Halem said. "I think even the politicians view baseball as potentially an important way to find common ground between two governments."

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.