Cuban baseball player defectors welcomed home as heroes

(CNN) – Cuban baseball players could possibly have an easier, and legal, path to the United States if they want to play in the Major Leagues.

U.S. baseball officials say they want to negotiate with Cuba, so players don’t have to defect. Meanwhile, some who already left Cuba illegally are being welcomed home.

For these young Cuban players it was an opportunity that until recently would have been unthinkable: getting pointers not just from Major League Baseball stars, but from Cuban players who defected to the U.S. and were banned by the island’s communist-run government from ever returning home.

That is, until now.

“I am very happy to be back in my country,” LA Dodgers star hitter Yasiel Puig says, “after so many years where I haven’t returned. It’s emotional.”

In Cuba Yasiel Puig scraped on the comparatively meager salary a baseball player here earns. In 2012, after several attempts he left the island in a smugglers’ boat. A year later he signed a seven-year deal with the LA Dodgers for $42 million.

The promise of big money in the United States has emptied the Cuban league of many of their top players. A bitter lesson in market economics for a country that once claimed that love for the revolution was all their athletes required.

Cubans, for generations, have excelled at baseball. But a spree of defections and lack of resources leave many people here wondering if their beloved national pastime can ever recover.

During a three day goodwill trip MLB officials said they want to find a way for Cubans to play in the U.S. without turning to smugglers and criminal gangs.

“Ultimately negotiate with the Cuban baseball federation, with the cooperation of the US government and the Cuban government, a safe and legal path for Cuban baseball players who desire to play in major league baseball to reach the major leagues.”

Cuban officials have indicated they want to make a deal if it could lead to badly needed revenue for their government. And as Cuba continues to open, more fans want to see how the game is played in the U.S.

“It’s not only the enticement or the motivation of the money for these young players to leave, but also they don’t have the same status at home that they used to have. The guys that used to be branded as traitors and still are to some degree by the government, but for the fans, these guys are the heroes.”

Cuban fans might get to see more of their heroes up close again soon. Major League Baseball officials say they are negotiating to bring spring training games to the island next year.

Copyright 2015 CNN

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