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Cuban defector Yasiel Puig of Dodgers is welcomed in return to island with MLB team

Cuban defector Yasiel Puig of Dodgers is welcomed in return to island with MLB team

Alexei Ramirez (left) and Yasiel Puig pose with a worker at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba where the MLB contingent is staying on Tuesday.

(Kevin Baxter)

When Yasiel Puig left Cuba in a speedboat in the winter of 2012, it was with the understanding that he was turning his back on his homeland, his culture and much of his family forever.

Forever turned out to be a lot shorter than he figured, with Puig returning home Tuesday to be welcomed not as a defector, but as a national hero.

“I’m very happy to be here,” Puig said as he weaved through a crowd of more than 100 people who packed a ballroom at venerable Hotel Nacional to greet a delegation of Major League Baseball players and officials to Havana.

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The Obama administration’s year-long efforts to normalize relations with Cuba have been felt in many places, but in few places has it been felt stronger than in baseball. For nearly a quarter of a century, there was only one path for Cuban players aiming for the big leagues, and it often involved perilous journeys led by human traffickers.

And those lucky enough to make it out alive faced lengthy prison terms if they returned to the island.

Major League Baseball sent a group of players to Cuba on a goodwill tour, and Los Angeles Dodger Yasiel Puig is part of that group. L.A. Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke is hopeful that trip reinvigorates the player.

MLB’s three-day goodwill mission, the first to Cuba in 16 years, was intended as the first big step toward changing that.

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Cuba allowed Puig and fellow defectors Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, Brayan Pena of the St. Louis Cardinals and free-agent Alexis Ramirez to return without fear of sanction. In exchange, Dan Halem, baseball’s chief legal officer, and Tony Clark, executive director of the players union, said they were open to a new relationship that could see Cuban players sign directly with major league clubs.

“It is the goal of our commissioner and our owners to ultimately negotiate with the Cuban Baseball Federation, and with the cooperation of the U.S. government and the Cuban government, a safe and legal path for Cuban baseball players who desire to play Major League Baseball to reach the major leagues,” Halem said. “The current system ... is not acceptable. But it is going to take the cooperation of the two governments.”

Halem said MLB was also making progress in plans to stage two spring-training games in Cuba in March, the first games between major league teams on the island since 1959. Moving at least one regular-season game to Cuba next summer is also being discussed.

Cuba showed its willingness to talk by sending Antonio Castro, son of former president Fidel Castro and a top baseball official, to Hotel Nacional for a news conference that was covered by virtually every media outlet in the country.

Antonio Castro has been talking to high-ranking MLB officials for about a year and one scenario that has been raised is a posting system similar to the one that guides relations between MLB and Japanese baseball, with U.S. teams paying Japanese owners for the right to sign players. Only in the case of Cuba the owner would be the Cuban government, which would essentially be paid for letting its players go.

That is a long shot since it would require lifting the U.S. embargo of Cuba, something the Republican-led Congress is unlikely to approve.

Little of that seems to matter to Puig who, along with fellow defector Yoenis Cespedes, hatched the idea of a homecoming trip 2 ½ years ago as a way of giving back. So during Tuesday’s news conference, the players union and MLB made a $200,000 donation to a Cuban charity and the players, including Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, will give clinics to children Wednesday and Thursday.

“It’s cool to be a part of that and see it,” said Kershaw, who sounded as if a new relationship with Puig, a teammate with whom he has reportedly feuded, could be on the horizon as well. “For me it’s just important to see where people come from. I got to go to the Dominican last year and that was so good for me because I got to know my teammates better, understand how they grew up and what it was like and what baseball means to their culture.

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“Same thing here. I have a lot of Cuban teammates, I know what it’s like a little bit.”

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