HAVANA — Could a new wave of Cuban players be headed for the majors in America without having to defect from the communist island?
Cuba announced Friday that athletes from all sports will soon be able to sign contracts with foreign leagues, a break with a decades-old policy that held pro sports to be anathema to socialist ideals.
It's a step toward the day when the road from Havana to Yankee Stadium might mean simply hopping on a plane rather than attempting a perilous sea crossing or sneaking out of a hotel at midnight in a strange land.
If it does come to pass, it could increase, astronomically, in some cases, the amount of money Cuban baseball players can earn.
Athletes' wages are not made public in Cuba but are believed to be somewhere around the $20 a month that most other state employees earn.
"It's the dream of many athletes to test themselves in other leagues — the big leagues, if at some point my country would allow it," said Yasmani Tomas, one of Cuba's top talents who plays for Havana Industriales.
Under the new policy, athletes will be eligible to play abroad as long as they fulfill their commitments at home, the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported. For baseball players, that means being available for international competitions as well as Cuba's November-to-April league.
President Raul Castro's government hopes the move will stem defections by athletes who are lured abroad by the possibility of lucrative contracts, a practice that saps talent from Cuba's teams.
"I think this could help stop the desertions a little bit," said Yulieski Gourriel, a 29-year-old third baseman for Sancti Spiritus. "I don't even want to talk about how much I've been offered, because every time we leave the country, there are these offers. I've never paid attention because I've always said I'm not interested."
Professional sports were essentially done away with under Fidel Castro in 1961, two years after the Cuban revolution, and athletes became state employees just like factory workers and farmhands.
Sport as private enterprise was deemed incompatible with the Marxist society Castro intended to create.