While Jeff Vinik was revealing his master plan for the Channelside area – a plan that includes hockey but not baseball – the national news was discussing the thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba, ending an over 50-year stalemate.
That Tampa’s economic centers are ready to reap the benefits of increased opportunities with Cuba has been reported often over the last several years. After yesterday’s news, there are even more people writing about the possibilities of new trade and new business opportunities.
According to the Tampa Bay Times,
Before the embargo, Cuba was Tampa Bay’s biggest trading partner. Arthur Savage, president of longtime family shipping business A.R. Savage, envisions it mushrooming into a major trade partner again if this new era of normalization leads toward ending a decades-long embargo.
At the most basic level, that should result in more jobs and more income to the Tampa Bay area.
Increased relations with Cuba could also have an impact on baseball, not only in Tampa, but in Florida as a whole. As I wrote back in August, there is a long history of Cuban baseball in Tampa, from the early days of the Ybor City Cigar Teams to recent exhibitions between the University of Tampa and a Havana squad.
As people, goods, and ideas move from Tampa to Cuba, there is a possibility so too could baseball fandom. Although Cuba has its own baseball infrastructure, new telecommunications endeavors could mean new MLB fans. While the Marlins and Dodgers currently have the biggest MLB superstars of Cuban descent (Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig, respectively) the Rays would have a unique opportunity to win hearts and minds.
A new Rays stadium in or around Ybor City with an emphasis on Tampa’s Cuban roots could go a long way. So too could hosting a Cuban Heritage Night with appearances by Cuban baseball players living in Tampa. Hosting exhibitions with Cuban teams could also help.
Of course, in years to come, MLB and Minor League Baseball could look to capitalize on the untapped Cuban market. While the first step would be to normalize amateur signing processes and remove human trafficking of athletes such as the aforementioned Puig, further steps could mean the return of Minor League Baseball and perhaps even Spring Training to Cuba.
Minor League Baseball traveling from Tampa to Havana is not unprecedented. According to MiLB.com,
Havana finally got minor league baseball in 1946 with the formation of the Class C Florida International League. In addition to the Cuban entry, the circuit consisted of teams in Tampa, Miami, Miami Beach, West Palm Beach and Lakeland.
The Havana club played in the FL International League until 1950, when it moved to the International League.
Spring Training in Cuba is not without precedent. According to CubanBeisbol.com, the New York Giants trained in Cuba in 1937; the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1941, 1942, and 1947; and the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953.
Could a current team move their spring training and Florida State League affiliate to Havana? Depending on how normal relations become, I think so. I think the Yankees would jump on the opportunity. They have the money and the global brand presence. And if the Rays move to Tampa and play the territorial rights card, having their own spring training country would fit the Yankees style of thinking big.