By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - The Florida state legislature passed a bill on Friday that would allow Major League Baseball teams in the state to seek subsidies for ballpark improvements, but only if MLB changes its hiring rules for Cuban players.
A $13 million economic-development package aimed at encouraging the state's professional sports franchises won approval in the state House of Representatives on the last day of the session.
It allows the Miami Marlins and the Tampa Bay Rays, along with soccer franchises in Orlando and Miami and the Daytona speedway, to compete for up to $2 million a year in sales tax concessions for expansion or renovation of franchises.
The House and Senate added an amendment that would deny funding to baseball teams unless MLB drops a requirement that players from Cuba establish residency in another country before becoming free agents and negotiating with U.S. teams.
Because of longstanding hostile relations between the United States and Cuba including a 52-year-old U.S. trade embargo and Cuban restrictions on professional sports, it is currently impossible for a player living in Cuba to sign with a U.S. team.
As a result, those coming directly from Cuba go into the amateur draft, potentially costing them millions of dollars they might otherwise negotiate as free agents.
The amendment was prompted by the case of Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Yasiel Puig who escaped from Cuba to Mexico, where he was allegedly held hostage by smugglers, according to a Miami court case. Other Cuban players have also told dramatic stories about their risky clandestine departures from Cuba.
MLB said that even if the bill is signed into law by Florida's governor, a change in its policies would probably not be enough to stop human smugglers.
The league questioned whether Cuban players had to "rely on traffickers to defect to countries other than the U.S., such as Mexico or the Dominican Republic, but would not need the assistance of traffickers to reach U.S. soil."
(Editing by David Adams and David Gregorio)