Havana, Cuba sits just over 100 miles south of Key West, Florida, just a hair farther than the 93 miles that separate the two countries at their closest point. For years longer than I've been alive, though, Cuba has seemingly been farther away from the United States than the moon, and at times even less accessible. Come to think of it, about as many United States government employees have walked on the moon in the last 45 years as have walked on non-Guantanamo Cuban soil. (Legally, at least.)
However, developments announced this morning have both countries aiming to reestablish diplomatic relations for the first time since Fidel Castro seized power through the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s.
BREAKING: US officials: US to start talks with Cuba to normalize full diplomatic relations, open embassy.— The Associated Press (@AP) December 17, 2014
The 1950s were a long, long, very long time ago. For recent refugees, current Americans of Cuban descent, and families who have been split apart thanks to the fractious relationship these two countries have maintained for decades, today's announcement carries the type of ramifications I simply cannot imagine. Hopefully the bureaucratic wheels will spin quickly enough to resolve a dilemma that has lasted two generations too long, and that will close old wounds and open doors for newer, brighter avenues.
Part of what has made this international rift so hard to understand lies in the centuries of prior engagement between the two entities, and the subsequent overlap in their cultures and pastimes. Ninety-three miles of navigable water hasn't daunted trade between cultures for millennia, and for hundreds of years prior to the Cuban Revolution there was an consistent flow of commerce between the island and the mainland. Tobacco. Sugar. Gambling. Baseball.
Calling baseball "America's Pastime" while in the same breath referencing the game in Cuba simply doesn't work. The game has been popular on the island every bit as long as its prevalence in the states, and it is ingrained there in a way most Americans (present company included) simply cannot fathom, and players have grown up in and through baseball there for over a century as a result. Baseball has long been a source of pride for Cuba, and rightfully so, since for a hundred plus years Americans have become well aware that they can be very damn good at playing it.
Cincinnati baseball fans, specifically, have come to appreciate the talents of the best and brightest Cuban stars for decades, as few - if any - city has been home to more stars from their Southern neighbor. Havana native Dolf Luque made meals of his opposition from the mound for 12 years as a Red, his 10.6 bWAR 1923 season still the best by a Reds pitcher in the modern era of the game (well before the first Cy Young Award was handed out, or else the Reds wouldn't be one of the few franchises without a winner). Hall of Famer Tony Perez needs little introduction, as the Big Dog from Camaguey's name is still found all over the career leaderboard in nearly every category in Reds history, and eventual All Star Mike Cuellar was signed by the Reds and broke into the majors with them in 1959. More recently, the club has reignited their interests in the best players born in Cuba, as they've dug deep into their pockets to sign both Aroldis Chapman and Raisel Iglesias, sought out Brayan Pena and signed him to a multi-year deal, and took both Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal with 1st round picks in back to back drafts.
Even prior to today's announcement, the influx of talented stars from Cuba into the US had picked up in recent years, each with harrowing tales of the horrors faced in defection with the promise of millions upon millions of dollars hanging in the balance. Yasiel Puig's path to stardom in MLB required smugglers, extortion, and god knows what else, and Yunel Escobar faced a wrath of obstacles once the Cuban government suspected he had insight into the defection of Pena, his good friend growing up. And even though those two were successful in their treks to the money flowing from Major League Baseball, the nature of relations between the US and Cuba meant they were cut off from almost all interaction with the families and friends they left behind.
Major League Baseball has long been the beneficiary of the hard paths taken by the most talented players from Cuba, and while that will undoubtedly continue after today's landmark political shift, there's hope that the process by which they benefit will become infinitely more humane and decent. Perhaps nobody will have to brave weeks at sea in makeshift rafts for a chance to make money at what they're good at. Perhaps their future earnings won't depend solely on which beach they wash up on, as the difference between defecting to Andorra and being declared an international free agent versus defecting to the US and being only draft-eligible can mean the difference in tens of millions of guaranteed dollars. Perhaps the advancements in negotiations between the two countries will open doors to an international draft system that replaces the highest-bidder mold currently in place, a development that would be a game-changer in the way modern baseball rosters are assembled.
More importantly - at least from the minor angle that baseball represents - is that baseball now may have the opportunity to invest in - and give back to - a country that has provided it with as much as Cuba has over the years. Baseball academies, jobs and salaries for participating in a game that was forced to be amateur for more than the last half century. Independent livelihood connected to a pastime that already powers a country rich in heritage, and the ability for their stars to perform on the biggest stage, for the biggest dollars, with their families and friends actually able to witness it and participate in the success.
The Cincinnati Reds have long been the beneficiaries of great play from their Cuban stars, and if the relationship between Cuba and the United States advances the way today's announcement suggests, they'd be remiss not to be on the forefront of reciprocating. This is game-changing news for cultures existing right next door to one another, as well as to baseball culture worldwide.