Trump strikes out in rejecting Cuban baseball agreement | Opinion

President Trump scrapped an agreement that would have allowed Cuban ballplayers to come to the United States without defecting.
President Trump scrapped an agreement that would have allowed Cuban ballplayers to come to the United States without defecting. Getty Images

Baseball is a colorful sport where bleacher bums spend entire games browbeating umps for making early-inning bad calls. President Trump has made a lot of bad calls during the past two years, but none is likely to incense the general public more than his decision to dump the Major League Baseball Cuban player agreement.

Well, maybe healthcare.

Unbelievably — and unceremoniously — Trump just struck out with both American and Cuban baseball fans. For Miami, it’s bad enough that the Marlins are dead last this early in the season. What’s worse is that POTUS just shut down the deal that would have brought a few more gifted, big-bat Cubans into the league. As Marlin Stadium habitués might put it: “Throw the bum out!”

Everyone in Little Havana and La Habana is familiar with a well-worn and persistent myth, romanticized by writers and exaggerated in fading memory: Fidel Castro comes to the United States to try out for the New York Yankees, gets offered a $5,000 deal with the 1951 New York Giants, but turns it down to chase a law degree.

It’s all bunk, of course, but what a great fantasy. If only he took the baseball contract, pitched for the majors, and was too busy to contemplate a trip on the Granma yacht and an assault on the Moncada Barracks.

Instead, Fidel led the Cuban revolutionary government that created Miami exiles and their enduring yearning for their long-lost home. It’s time to prevent another Fidel fiasco. President Trump needs to open up and legalize the raw capitalist baseball marketplace to those talented Cuban players.

Here’s why: Baseball is a very big business. Baseball is also Cuba’s national pastime. Great players grow out of the Cuban fields and streets often to become good enough for the MLB. Good enough to get multimillion-dollar contracts.

Those big-buck baseballers become national heroes in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and everywhere else on the island nation. Their on-field successes, fame and fortune become legendary. They gain way more attention than Cuban revolutionary heroes. In the process, maligned and tarnished capitalism gets a much-needed shining while America not only legitimately gets some great players, the United States also gets sports superstars who function as cultural ambassadors to a Cuba that otherwise vilifies the United States. It’s a win-win.

Think Puig or Abreu. The list is long. Forbes magazine estimated that a list of 49 players who have defected since the year 2000 have had an estimated value of $1.73 billion. Around a billion in salaries and a lot more with posting fees and signing bonuses. Sounds like a good deal all around, right?

Here’s the rub for Trump: It was Barack Obama’s plan to open Cuba, close Guantánamo and normalize baseball relations between the MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation. Anyone awake over the past two years knows that the one overriding Trump administration policy principle is this: Reverse any and all Obama policies.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, the opening to Cuba may have flipped Florida toward Trump. Even though 2016 polls showed that the majority of Cuban Americans were inclined toward normalizing relations with Havana, older Cubans were not. And if there is one certainty in American politics, it is that older people vote more than younger people do.

Older people also like baseball more than the new generation. They should also hate this new Trump policy.

Donald Trump likes to play hardball with immigrants, especially those who are trying to come in to the country illegally, seeking asylum and claiming refugee status. He just forced his Homeland Security chief, Kirstjen Nielsen, to resign for not being tough enough on this issue. He chewed her out for not clamping down on those who seek entry to the United States by traveling through third countries, like the Central Americans traveling from the Northern Triangle through Mexico.

Now the president wants to force a whole class of talented and valuable baseball players to take inordinate risks by illegally traveling to third countries, often paying huge sums to questionable characters who traffic in people. There is also a business risk then expects these un-scouted players and potential pros to contract with MLB teams.

The risks are numerous, the challenges great and the shortsightedness of the reversed baseball policy is obvious. Trump is clearly more concerned with his golf handicap than what happens on the baseball diamond. This is one Obama-era policy, however, he should have kept. At least the Cuban baseball players now stuck on the island will have healthcare.

Markos Kounalakis, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, listens to ball games while commuting. He was an A’s fan during Jose Canseco’s reign.