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Restoring relations with Cuba good for baseball, but time will tell how much

The consensus within baseball circles is that President Barack Obama's decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba only can be a good thing for the sport — although it's too early to tell exactly what changes may occur.

"We'll want to see what happens and how we can handle it the best way, but I'm very much excited, yes," said Fred Ferreira, the Orioles' executive director of international recruiting. "It's something that has been rumored and rumored and rumored for years, but nothing ever materialized. And now it is very possible."

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Shortly after Obama made the historic announcement Wednesday afternoon, Major League Baseball issued a statement, saying it is "closely monitoring" the situation.

"While there are not sufficient details to make a realistic evaluation, we will continue to track this significant issue, and we will keep our clubs informed if this different direction may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba," the statement said.

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Later, the Major League Baseball Players Association issued its own statement: "We will watch this situation closely as it continues to unfold and we remain hopeful that today's announcement will lead to further positive developments."

Cuba undoubtedly is fertile ground for baseball, with some of that country's top talents defecting and then starring on diamonds in the United States. The current list includes 2014 American League Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig and Cincinnati Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman.

The Orioles have four Cuban defectors playing in the organization, including outfielder Henry Urrutia, who is on the club's 40-man roster and debuted with the Orioles in 2013, and outfielder Dariel Alvarez, who is considered one of the club's top prospects. Pitcher Lazaro Leyva and outfielder Elier Leyva were signed in the past few months by Ferreira after he watched them work out in other countries.

"I am very happy to know that finally something is happening, I hope everything is done is for the good of my people," Urrutia wrote in text messages. "(It has been) four years since I've seen my family and (I) know that there is now the possibility."

Since Fidel Castro's communist regime took over in 1959, Cuba has been off-limits to major league teams — with one significant exception.

In 1999, after multiple rejected requests by Orioles managing partner Peter G. Angelos, the Clinton administration relaxed travel guidelines to Cuba and finally granted Angelos and his club permission to play a home-and-home series with a Cuban All-Star team in Havana and Baltimore.

On March 28, 1999, the Orioles beat the Cuban team, 3-2, in 11 innings before roughly 50,000 people at Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano. Castro watched part of the game with Angelos and baseball commissioner Bud Selig. It was considered a landmark moment in diplomatic relations between the neighboring countries.

A few weeks later, on May 3 at Camden Yards, the Cuban All-Stars pummeled an apparently disinterested Orioles squad, 12-6, in front of an announced 47,940, which did not include the throng of anti-Castro protesters outside the stadium.

The exhibitions were supposed to pave the way for more teams to visit Cuba and improve relations, but that never occurred. Angelos and the Orioles had interest in returning to the island a decade later, but that, too, never materialized.

Because diplomatic relations never thawed, defecting Cuban players risked their lives, abandoned their families and dealt with extortion by handlers in order to sign contracts with major league teams.

Most defectors have to wait months or years to establish residency in another country before they can obtain visas to play in the United States — if they can make it out of Cuba without being caught.

Urrutia, for instance, failed once in his attempt to defect before effectively escaping in July 2011. He spent roughly 18 months in the Dominican Republic and Haiti before he was allowed to join the Orioles in the spring of 2013. He received a $778,500 signing bonus — a pittance compared to what some Cuban defectors have received recently. In August, the Boston Red Sox signed Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo to a seven-year, $72.5 million deal.

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Shortly after the Orioles' 1999 exhibitions, the club reportedly established a policy prohibiting it from negotiating with Cuban defectors in respect to the diplomacy fostered between the Orioles and Castro.

If there were such restrictions, the Orioles lifted them in November 2006 when they agreed to a three-year, $19 million contract with reliever Danys Baez, a former Cuban defector who had been a major league All-Star. The Orioles now scout most Cuban defectors once they become available, but the largest signing bonus they have awarded was $800,000 to Alvarez in 2013.

Ferreira said if Cuba were to open its borders to scouts, the Orioles would certainly have a presence. It's possible the club could establish an academy there, similar to the one the Orioles have in the Dominican Republic.

"You try to get the best edge you can and come up with the best players possible, and that would be one of the ways," said Ferreira, who believes the Orioles would immediately have scouts in Cuba if given the green light by the government. "We would try to see as many [players] as you can as quickly as you can. You can't sit back and wait."

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