The Cuban government announced today that it has taken the first steps to allow Cuban athletes to sign professional contracts with American teams, breaking a decades-old ban that had required Cuban athletes to defect before they could sign. This sounds like good news to Yankee fans, who salivate over the possibility of signing the next Yashiel Puig or Aroldis Chapman. Whether this is a bonanza for the Yankees, however, will depend on the ability of the Yankees' international scouting department to sign the right Cuban players.
The Yankee masthead lists Felix M. Lopez as the club's executive vice president and chief international officer. Lopez's main qualification for his position seems to be that he married Jessica Steinbrenner, George Steinbrenner's daughter and Hal Steinbrenner's sister. To the casual observer, his qualifications seem to fall somewhere between wafer thin and non-existent.
In The Yankee Years, Tom Verducci described Lopez's rise to power:
One of Steinbrenner's sons-in-law, Felix Lopez, was growing increasingly interested in all aspects of the business of the New York Yankees, completing one of the most astounding rises in corporate American history. Lopez came to the Yankees' boardroom by way of landscaping. He met Jessica Steinbrenner, The Boss' daughter, while tending to her yard. He married The Boss' daughter and immediately became a baseball expert.
Last spring, Lopez boasted to reporters of his heavy involvement with the WBC champion team from the Dominican Republic when, the Daily News reported, his only involvement was lining up the Dominican team for a workout at Steinbrenner Field. GM Brian Cashman is above Lopez on the Yankee masthead but it remains to be seen whether family ties trump the chain of command.
One interesting fact is that Lopez was born in Cuba. However, bad blood between Cuba expatriates and those who stayed behind may make this a liability. Ken Davidoff of the N.Y. Post has written that Lopez "is known as such a bully and a boor that he makes Hank Steinbrenner look like a gentleman and a scholar, in comparison."
A caveat is in order. Cuba will apparently require its athletes to pay Cuban taxes on money earned in the United States and this may violate the United States' embargo on financial transactions with Cuba. This means that it could take time before American teams can sign non-defecting Cuban players.
Fidel Castro outlawed professional sports in Cuba in 1961. Currently, Cuban ballplayers are state workers and earn the same pay as factory workers and farmhands. The Associated Press reports this pay to be in the area of $20 per month.