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After 50 Years, Cuba Says Its Baseball Players Can Go Abroad

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Baseball season is over in the United States, but it's just getting started in Cuba. It's the first season since Communist authorities lifted a 50-year-old ban on players' signing professional contracts abroad.

The move could bring even more Cuban defections to the U.S. major leagues, but fans on the island aren't booing the change.

Going to a baseball game at Havana's Latin American stadium is a little different from the typical experience in the U.S.

There's no beer for sale, and no nachos or Cracker Jacks either. Fans with air horns and cowbells sip rum from soda bottles and smoke cigarettes in the concrete bleachers.

In place of a Jumbotron or the Kiss Cam, there are socialist slogans in huge letters above the outfield, declaring "Cuba is a country of champions" and its athletes "a victory of the Revolution."

One thing that does compare is the talent on the field.

Yulieski Gourriel, the star third baseman for Havana's Industriales, could probably sign a U.S. big league contract tomorrow for tens of millions. In Cuba, top players are lucky to earn $100 a month.

But after spending decades trying to block them from leaving, Cuba is betting its biggest stars will return home if allowed to spend part of the year earning real money in places like Mexico or Japan.

It's a huge change, but it also creates an easy way to defect to the United States, where salaries are much higher. However, the U.S. trade embargo means Cuban players and their earnings can't legally return. Still, Industriales fan Yolexi Ibañez says he's not worried about a talent drain from the island.

"Ballplayers grow like the grass here," Ibañez says. "Some will leave, but I think others will return home just like they do in Venezuela, Mexico or the Dominican Republic, and put on the uniforms of their national teams."

In the Fidel Castro school of sports, a country's athletes should remain amateurs, playing for national pride — not the highest-paying employer. But that view is fading here along with the 87-year-old retired comandante, and one of his sons, baseball official Antonio Castro, is pushing the changes.

Other young Cubans at the stadium like Silvia Blanco say they want to see their players competing against the best in the world.

"That's what motivates them," Blanco says, "and in turn makes them better players."

The streets are often the best place for baseball commentary in Cuba, especially a spot known as the Hot Corner.

It's not a corner per se, but a meeting place in Havana's Central Park where men gather each day to argue heatedly about baseball. One of the regular combatants here, Jesus Sosa, says there are few doubts that more Cubans will end up leaving for bigger pay and the chance to play at the game's highest level in the U.S.

"That's where the best baseball is played," Sosa says. "Maybe more Cubans can now play in Mexico or Japan, but the top players from those leagues also go to the United States."

For decades, fans in Cuba had virtually no access to information about players who defected. But now many Cubans follow Major League Baseball through the Internet or pirated satellite TV. The government has also relented, showing World Series games on state television this year for the first time.

Rey Estrada watched the whole thing and says Cuban fans will soon be like Dominicans or Venezuelans, rooting for their players even when they no longer compete at home.

"In the end, we all feel proud," Estrada says, "even those who criticize the players for leaving."

Cubans have continued to defect at a record pace, despite the government's new opening. After fleeing to Haiti over the summer, slugger Jose Abreu signed with the Chicago White Sox last month for six years and $68 million. It's the biggest contract yet for a Cuban player.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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