MLB commissioner wants Cuba exhibition game in 2016

Major League Baseball (MLB) commissioner Rob Manfred has declared his intention to play an exhibition game in Cuba next year despite a baseball official from the island country having stated that the two sides are yet to begin talks.

Cuba has not staged a MLB game since 1999 when the Baltimore Orioles played the Cuba national team in a match that ended a 40-year gap since the last visit of an MLB side. However, the island nation was a regular host of US teams and MLB spring training sessions before Fidel Castro came to power.

Despite the absence, Cuba and the US have retained a long-term connection through baseball with various Cuban-born players having gone on to play in MLB. Improving diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba have led to reports of the MLB potentially reigniting its ties.

Earlier this month, Manfred said that the league had entered into talks with the US government over the possibility of staging exhibition games in Cuba. He said the effort would form part of an effort to capitalise on the country’s interest in baseball and boost the league’s presence in other countries.

Manfred has now suggested that plans have reached the next stage. He told the Wall Street Journal newspaper that the MLB is likely to play an exhibition game in Cuba next year.  He said such a move could help boost diplomatic relations between the US and the island nation.

“To the extent that we can play a role in helping the United States government effectuate a change in policy, that we're following their lead and we're acting in a way that's consistent with what they want us to do, that's an honour for us,” Manfred said.

However, despite Manfred having outlined the MLB’s desires, Antonio Diaz, a National Baseball Directorate spokesperson, said that the two parties are yet to discuss such a move and denied any agreement had been struck.

Diaz told the Reuters news agency: “That may be their will, but we have not had any conversations. There is no agreement.”

In order for a game to take place in Cuba, US President Barack Obama would need to lift a current economic embargo on the island nation. Obama has stated his desire to go ahead with the measure but is yet to receive approval from the Republican-controlled Congress.

Other issues that would need to be addressed before a game could take place include how Cuba can protect its best players being lured to the US illegally, with Cuba likely to demand an orderly regulation of how its players are signed by MLB teams. In addition, Cuban ballparks fall far below the standards of those used in MLB and teams from the professional league would be wary of allowing their players to step onto Cuban field in their current conditions.