MLB Wants To Play In Cuba For First Time Since 1999

Fans cheer during an Industriales baseball game at El Latinoamericano stadium in Havana, Cuba, on Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. C
Fans cheer during an Industriales baseball game at El Latinoamericano stadium in Havana, Cuba, on Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. Cuba had 19 players on Major League Baseball rosters when last season began, and is one of the most sought-after markets for scouts. Photographer: Lisette Poole/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The big leagues may be returning to Cuba for the first time in more than 15 years.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred told The Wall Street Journal Thursday that the league would likely organize an exhibition game on the island sometime in early 2016.

The MLB’s efforts to start playing in Cuba come as the two countries work to restore diplomatic relations, which the U.S. severed back in 1961. The Barack Obama administration loosened travel regulations in January, making it easier for athletes to travel to the island to participate in sporting events.

“To the extent that we can play a role in helping the United States government effectuate a change in policy, that we’re following their lead and we’re acting in a way that’s consistent with what they want us to do, that’s an honor for us,” Manfred told the Journal.

While the MLB is optimistic, Cuban officials say they have yet to enter into negotiations.

"That may be their will, but we have not had any conversations," Antonio Diaz, a spokesman for Cuba's National Baseball Directorate said, according to Reuters. "There is no agreement."

Cubans have long excelled at the game, which was first introduced to the island in the 1860s, when Cubans studying abroad in the United States returned with a passion for the game, according to the History channel. The island’s first national league was created in 1878. Several MLB stars, including Yoenis Céspedes, Yasiel Puig and José Abreu, were born and raised on the island and later defected or immigrated to the United States.

The last time an MLB team played in Cuba was when the Baltimore Orioles played the island’s national team in 1999 in an exhibition game, according to The New York Times. The Cuban team then played the Orioles in the United States.

That 1999 game marked the first time that a major league team played in Cuba since the revolutionary government took over in 1959. Then-President Bill Clinton made the games possible by loosening the restrictions on travel to Cuba enforced through the embargo.

But former President George W. Bush, who took office in 2001, strengthened travel restrictions once more.

Obama and Cuban head of state Raúl Castro simultaneously announced on Dec. 17 that they would work toward restoring diplomatic relations. Since then, a series of three high-level diplomatic talks have taken place, but the two governments have yet to finalize the details that will allow them to reestablish embassies.

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Havana, Cuba