Hall of Famers Joe Torre and Dave Winfield are leading a delegation from Major League Baseball and its players’ association on a goodwill trip to Cuba that began Monday and ends Thursday.
The group includes Cuban-born players Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, Alexei Ramirez and Brayan Pena along with Miguel Cabrera, Clayton Kershaw, Nelson Cruz and Jon Jay. Clinics and charity events were on the schedule.
Here’s a brief look at MLB’s relationship with Cuba:
Baseball was introduced in Cuba in 1864 by Cuban students returning home from the U.S., and seven years later Cuban Esteban “Steve” Bellan became the first Latin American player in U.S. baseball, making his debut with the Troy Haymakers of the National Association. The first official baseball game in Cuba, between Habana and Almendares, was played on Dec. 29, 1878, and Bellan coached Habana to a 21-20 victory. In 1937, the New York Giants held their spring training camp in Havana, and the Brooklyn Dodgers held spring training there in 1941, 1942 and 1947 — in the latter year getting an extended look at Jackie Robinson, who later that year broke the major league color barrier.
The Havana Sugar Kings, a Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, played in the U.S. minor leagues from 1954-60. On March 21, 1959, less than three months after Fidel Castro’s revolution, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds played what would be the last game between major league teams in Cuba for the next four decades. Castro banned professional sports in Cuba on Jan. 14, 1962.
In September 1995, pitcher Livan Hernandez left the Cuban national team during a training camp in Monterrey, Mexico, one of the first in a series of high-profile players to defect and sign multimillion dollar contracts with MLB teams. More than 50 Cuban players have followed, many earning big-money deals. Abreu signed a $68 million, six-year deal with the Chicago White Sox and Yasmany Tomas got a $68.5 million, six-year contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Players leaving Cuba establish residency outside the United States and Canada so as to become free agents and not be subject to the amateur draft each June, which would limit their income.
On March 28 and May 3, 1999, the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national team played a two-game series in Havana and Baltimore. Game 1 in Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana was the first time a major league team played in Cuba in 40 years. It was attended by Castro, and Baltimore won 3-2 in 11 innings. Cuba won the second game 12-6 at Camden Yards, led by future Yankees starter Jose Contreras.
Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez was voted the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year, the first Cuban to win the award in either league since Jose Canseco in 1986. Abreu won the AL Rookie of the Year in 2014.
MLB hopes to arrange a two-game spring training exhibition series in Cuba this March involving the Tampa Bay Rays. In future years, it is conceivable MLB would attempt to play some regular-season games on the island, if the finances come together and a ballpark is suitable for games that count.