December 3, 2015 / 7:14 PM / 3 years ago

Major League Baseball officials, players to visit Cuba

HAVANA (Reuters) - Major League Baseball officials and players will visit Cuba this month for a goodwill tour, MLB’s first event on the Caribbean island since a 1999 exhibition game between the Cuban national team and the Baltimore Orioles.

Baseball, nicknamed America’s pastime, is the most-popular sport in Cuba and is seen as an avenue for diplomacy as the relations between the former Cold War adversaries thaw.

Hall of Fame player and manager Joe Torre, who is now MLB’s chief baseball officer, and Hall of Fame player Dave Winfield, representing the players’ union, will tour Cuba from Dec. 15-18 with a number of current players to be named at a later date, MLB said in a statement.

The announced agenda includes youth baseball clinics and a charity event.

The visit follows an agreement in July between the governments of the United States and Cuba to restore diplomatic relations after a 54-year break.

Commercial relations between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation are still largely blocked by the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, although MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has said he would like to see a minor-league team play an exhibition game in Cuba in 2016.

Cuba would like to reach an agreement with MLB to prevent the poaching of its players without compensation. For its part, MLB would like to regulate the transfer of players and have a chance to scout in Cuba as it does in other Caribbean countries.

In the absence of a formal transfer system, Cuban players wishing to reach the major leagues must abandon the island illegally, often on dangerous overseas journeys in the hands of smugglers.

More than 100 players have left in the past year, hoping to join other Cubans in signing multimillion-dollar contracts.

Cuban defectors among MLB’s stars include Jose Dariel Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds and Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets.

None of them, however, can return to play for the Cuban national team because they defected.

“Major League Baseball is very fortunate to have an opportunity to play a constructive role in the improvement of our country’s relations with Cuba,” Manfred said the statement.

“Baseball represents a pivotal common bond in our cultures ... I am hopeful that this tour will represent the beginning of a longstanding relationship,” he said.

Reporting by Daniel; Editing by Alan Crosby

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