A 24-year-old teacher from Virginia, Megan Kelly took Monday off work to attend Washington Nationals’ first official game with her father, uncles and cousins.

She’s pumped.

“It should be a national holiday,” said Kelly referring to efforts by many Americans to get the White House to declare a day off for the opening day of the baseball season.

It’s a sport that’s as intertwined with American culture as Big Macs and iPads.

But it’s not just America’s national pastime. While the US season is just getting under way, Cubans are glued to their radios and TVs watching the finals in their Serie Nacional.

Baseball is religion for many there too.

Change imminent?

But as USA and Cuba now ease restrictions on each other and their leaders meet in a historic summit in Panama, many people are asking how it will affect a sport beloved in both places.

The US will open an embassy in Havana for the first time in decades and American banks will be able to do some business on the island.

This weekend, all eyes will be focused on Obama and Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama as they meet publicly in their first official event together since the announcement in December.

This will be the most visible sign in decades that the two countries now want to be friends.

Baseball probably won’t be high on the agenda but US fans hope it will be someday.

For years, Cuban players have wowed US crowds on the field. Today, some of American baseball’s best players are Cubans: the power-hitting Jose Abreu from the Chicago White Sox, the stocky and cocky Yasiel Puig from the LA Dodgers and baseball’s home-run derby king, Yoenis Cespedes of the Detroit Tigers.

And although the number of players – 18 this year – is dwarfed by the Dominican Republican (83) and Venezuela (65), it has grown over the years and are particularly impressive considering how difficult it is for them to make it to the US.

Struggles

Most players must escape to get to US shores and often need the help of a shady, underground network. But for many, the risk is clearly worth it.

Marlins' Jose Fernandez earns a reported $651,000 salary [Getty Images]

Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez reportedly tried three times to escape with his family and was imprisoned briefly before he finally made it to Florida on his fourth attempt. It was a move that paid dividends for both parties. His first full season in the US was every owner’s dream: a 14-1 record with a 1.75 Earned Run Average.

He now makes a reported $651,000 salary, something he never would have received playing in Cuba.

That treacherous path to US baseball will continue for the time being. But it is becoming easier for players to join the league.

Before December, in order for players to be cleared by the US government, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a branch of the Treasury Department, often required a ‘specific license’ in order to unblock players.

This meant an intense review as well as proof of residency in a third country. That process takes months. Sometimes even longer.

A Treasury Department official confirmed to Al Jazeera that under the new rules, which were implemented in January, Cuban players now only need a ‘general license’ provided they aren’t on a list of sanctioned government officials or Communist party elites.

This means that players still need to prove residency in a third country but they no longer need to go through the same kind of review process.

American professional baseball is being very cautious in its response to the changing relationship.

We’re monitoring the situation closely and plan to follow the rules of the US government

John Blundell, MLB's VP of Communications

“We’re monitoring the situation closely and plan to follow the rules of the US government,” said John Blundell, MLB's VP of Communications. He added that MLB, ‘hasn’t had any discussions with any clubs’ about rule changes when it comes to Cuban players.

Reserved optimisim

However, professional baseball’s new commissioner Rob Manfred has reportedly said that a preseason game could be played in Cuba as early as next year.

But one expert on Cuban baseball thinks the ‘rush to optimism’ is overhyped and misunderstood.

Peter Bjarkman, who attends 20 games a year in Cuba and has written extensively on baseball there, said not much will really change until the US embargo is lifted. He added that it ‘has to be seen in a much larger perspective’.

Baseball in Cuba is far more popular than in the US and there are deep cultural and political reasons the government would hesitate to create a close relationship with American professional baseball.

“They [Cubans] clearly do not want to become the Dominican Republic or Venezuela,” said Bjarkman, referring to the ties MLB has with both countries where the best young players are developed and shipped off to the US to feed American professional baseball’s minor league system.

“They’re not going to return to their days as a colony. They’re not going to give up their socialist structures.”
He points to a mutual agreement that now exists between Japan and Cuba that highlights why the relationship with MLB would have serious glitches.

Under the agreement, Cuban players are allowed to work and earn a salary in Japan as long as they return to play in Cuba’s winter league, says Bjarkman. 

No American executive, agent or owner would allow a top player to work in both leagues, added Bjarkman, because the risk of injury would be too high and MLB ultimately sees them as primarily their property.

Regardless, the diplomatic thaw is already being felt in the sports world. Earlier, the NBA announced it would be conducting a development camp at the end of April in Havana.

Source: Al Jazeera