LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Major League Baseball hasn't given up on making a deal with Cuba. It's still searching for ways to sign the island's star players. This, after the Trump administration canceled a deal brokered by President Obama that would've let Cuban athletes come play in the U.S. without defecting.
MLB has hired new lobbyists, and its commissioner recently met with President Trump. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the Cuban players are now dealing with dashed hopes and disappointment.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Players warm up on the field at the Latinoamericano Stadium in Havana for a hot Sunday afternoon game.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAT HITTING BALL)
KAHN: While batters take practice swings, pitcher Pavel Hernandez Bruce, with a 93-mile-an-hour fastball, says he was taken by surprise to see his name on the Cuban Baseball Federation's list of 34 players unveiled in April.
PAVEL HERNANDEZ BRUCE: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "I was just watching TV and found my name on the list," he says. That meant U.S. Major League Baseball scouts could legally sign him up for play through the deal brokered during President Obama's warming of relations with Cuba.
HERNANDEZ BRUCE: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "It's something I've always wanted," he says, "going to play in the U.S. major leagues."
But less than a week after the list was released, President Trump canceled the MLB deal, claiming the U.S. doesn't do business with Cuba's Communist leaders and that Cuba's Baseball Federation is controlled by the regime.
KAHN: That topic and all things baseball are routinely discussed in the heated tones in Havana's famous Parque Central - Central Park.
JUAN DE DIOS: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "All Cubans feel destroyed now," says Juan de Dios. "Canceling the deal was a cruel blow to the players," he said.
But Tony Salazar, sporting a Houston Astros cap, says everyone knows the government controls Cuba's Baseball Federation.
TONY SALAZAR: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "If you play with the league, you aren't a free agent," he says. Salazar hopes something is worked out so the Cuban players don't have to risk so much to make it to the U.S.
For decades, Cuban players have had to defect to make it to the U.S. majors. They travel a dangerous path through Mexico, Haiti or the Dominican Republic in the hands of a network of smugglers. MLB said the new deal would put an end to that perilous practice. And, in fact, during the first four months of this year, not one player was smuggled off the island, says Cuban sports writer Francys Romero.
FRANCYS ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "The brakes were on. The whole exodus had stopped," says Romero, reached by phone in Miami. He says those numbers will inevitably rise again.
MLB is trying to persuade the Trump administration to reconsider the deal, but Trump officials say they won't work with Cuba until the island's regime stops its support of Venezuela. And that has put Major League Baseball in a tough spot, says Adrian Burgos, Jr., a history professor at the University of Illinois. He says MLB's reputation has been stained by the smugglers who operate in the sport, but the polarizing political times don't look favorable for a quick resolution.
ADRIAN BURGOS JR: And in the interim, it's really those Cuban baseball defectors who will have to carry the weight of the implications of this agreement not going into effect.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KAHN: Back at the Havana stadium, Hernandez's team is winning. He says he won't defect and will stay in Cuba and keep playing. Maybe Donald Trump won't get reelected next year, he says.
HERNANDEZ BRUCE: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: And with a chuckle, he says, "that's something the whole world is hoping for."
Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB'S "BLACK CHICKEN 37") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.