News that the U.S. will normalize relations with Cuba had MLB scouts' cell phones buzzing off their bedside tables this morning. Presumably phones (rotary dial, flip) were ringing in Cuba as well. The island, best known to Americans for manufacturing international crises and CIA targets, grows baseball talent as well as it grows tobacco. If the Cold War mentality finally succumbs to tropical heat - and one or more Castros simply succumb - local stars will be shaking hands with a lot of grizzled former middle relievers trying to convince them that a year of Triple A ball in Omaha will do them good.
It won't and shipping players from a capitalist (or communist-in-name-only) Cuba to the mainland makes about as much sense as moving the Wynn casino from Vegas to Salt Lake City. Thanks to the time-suspending properties of a planned economy that has frozen the country Encino Man-style in the late sixties for half a century, baseball is still king in Cuba. In Havana, Bo Jackson is a power hitter, Michael Vick is a guy who couldn't cut it on the Rockies, and Michael Jordan is a never-was. The Socios have been nuts about "America's Pastime" since the Sugar Kings, a minor-league franchise affiliated with the Reds, took the country by storm in 1946.
The Sugar Kings brought in massive, flag-waving crowds, won tons of games, and may have been the most interesting team in baseball (supporters once accidentally shot the third base coach) back when baseball was actually interesting. They had everything that the MLB's least exciting teams don't: great sandwiches, great pitching, and great fans. They were everything that the Miami Marlins aren't.
Speaking of the Marlins, remember that time owner Jeffrey Loria plotted to move that franchise - then the Expos - from Montreal, where it was beloved, to South Florida, where no one cared? Remember that time the county ponied up $500 million it didn't have for a new stadium? Remember that time the Marlins had the third worst attendance in the MLB? That was last year, despite the rise of Giancarlo Stanton, who might be the best thing to happen to American baseball since Yasiel Puig got off a plane. Stanton has a massive contract that should keep him in Miami until precisely the moment Loria can get rid of him (six years). The whole operation is, in short, bloated in precisely the way dead things get when you leave them in a very hot swamp.
Which is why the Marlins should move to Havana. Not only would it make sense for the team - built in talent pipeline, larger, demographically similar fan base, potential government-mandated salary cap - but it would make sense for baseball, which wants badly to be an international sport and has only the Blue Jays to show for its ambition.
The only people who lose if the big move happens are the roughly nine remaining Miami loyalists (last year, Loria had an approval rating of 6%) and the team's owner. Baseball fans can chip in for plane tickets for the fans and encourage Loria to make the trip on foot. Problem solved: New era begun. And speaking of new eras, the hat sales alone would justify the whole endeavor. The entire Caribbean basin would be rocking new snapbacks on opening day. We've tried just about everything to bring the free market to Cuba; maybe it's time to take a lesson from our own economic system and offer the Cuban people something they actually want.
And this isn't just about Cubans. This is about Americans. The MLB is financially viable and will continue to be so, but the league is going to eventually have to make a move to stay relevant. If we learned anything from the nineties, it's that expansion drafts are awful and that folks in Arizona have terrible taste in uniforms. Moving the Marlins would not only represent progress, it would actually be progress. And Jose Fernandez, the team's awesomely terrifying ace, can finally get a home-cooked meal.
As long as we remember to leave room for a stadium smoking section, the resurrected Sugar Kings are money - and what's better than that?
UPDATE: Major League Baseball is already on it. This, from the league's official PR Twitter account: "Major League Baseball is closely monitoring the White House's announcement regarding Cuban-American relations. 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." Basically, this thing is as good as done.
Photos by Mark Rucker / Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images