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When President Obama goes to Cuba later this month, he's expected to watch a baseball game. The Cuban national team will play the Tampa Bay Rays. Baseball is, of course, huge in Cuba. There are more than a dozen Cuban-born players on major league teams here, and that number could grow by a lot - and soon - if Major League Baseball has its way. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Baseball has long been a mutual passion for the U.S. and Cuba. There have been Cuban-born players in America from the game's earliest days in the 1800s. In the 1940s and '50s, there was a minor league team in Havana, the Sugar Kings. Fidel Castro was a well-known enthusiast, who even took to the pitcher's mound himself in this vintage newsreel.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Castro pitching is credited with striking out the three batters he faces. This is one game where the ump really has to be careful. Viva Fidel.
NAYLOR: But for a Cuban player to make it to the majors now is an arduous and sometimes dangerous ordeal. He must defect from his native land, leaving family behind. There have been cases of players being smuggled out then held for ransom by traffickers. Peter Bjarkman is a Cuba baseball historian and author of the forthcoming book "Cuba's Baseball Defectors."
PETER BJARKMAN: The whole history and tradition of Cuba has demonstrated that this is an island that produces tremendous baseball talent, and the assumption is that it will continue to do so. So looking down the road, Major League Baseball would like to have access to that talent.
NAYLOR: Access without players being forced to defect. So Major League Baseball, or MLB, has proposed a way around the trade embargo with Cuba. It wants the U.S. to allow Cuban players to sign directly with U.S. teams. In return, MLB would pay a portion of the players' salaries to a Cuban entity to support baseball on the island. White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged the discussions earlier this week.
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JOSH EARNEST: It is not at all uncommon for the administration to offer advice to U.S. businesses that are seeking to ensure that their actions are firmly in compliance with those regulations.
NAYLOR: But there are a lot of bases to touch. The baseball players union must sign off, as well as the Cuban government. And Bjarkman says it might be a tough sell in Havana because defections have already taken a toll on Cuban baseball.
BJARKMAN: The league has been weakened greatly. The national team has been weakened greatly, so it's very difficult for them to maintain that system. On the other hand, they realize that if they simply open the doors and allow the players to go to Major League Baseball, they're going to have not much of a national baseball structure left.
NAYLOR: Critics of normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba, like Miami human rights activist and blogger John Suarez, say sending money into Cuba will only benefit the Castro government. Cuba's baseball program, he points out, is run Fidel's son, Antonio.
JOHN SUAREZ: I think what you're going to see now is Major League Baseball and, more shockingly, the Players Association, going into business with the Castro family in exploiting Cuban baseball players.
NAYLOR: MLB's current contract with the union runs out in November, and it's expected the issue will be part of upcoming negotiations. That means the new Cuban connection won't be happening before next year's opening day. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.