By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Major League Baseball and Cuba reinstated talks on a player transfer agreement on Tuesday, taking advantage of an exhibition game in Havana that coincided with U.S. President Barack Obama's historic visit to Cuba, a senior MLB official said.
Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro caught a few innings of Tuesday's exhibition game between the Cuban national team and MLB's Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays won, 4-1.
Just as Obama and Castro have agreed to normalize relations, the Cuban Baseball Federation and MLB have enjoyed their own rapprochement and it, too, will require more diplomacy.
Other than an initial meeting in New York six months ago, the two sides had yet to discuss even the outlines of a deal that would allow MLB teams to sign players in Cuba without them having to defect.
"We discussed high-level concepts," Dan Halem, the MLB's chief legal officer, told Reuters, referring to the possible framework of a future agreement.
"We agreed to schedule meetings in the next few months to at least identify what our respective issues are and see if we can work through them."
To reach a deal, Cuba would require compensation for the rights to its players, but payments are blocked by the U.S. economic embargo. MLB is seeking special U.S. permission to compensate Cuba. The Treasury Department has yet to make a ruling.
In the meantime, most Cuban players with big league dreams continue to defect, a record 150 of them in 2015. Many are forced to abandon their families and take dangerous sea journeys in the hands of smugglers.
Obama, a Chicago White Sox fan, raised concerns about player safety and family separation in an interview with ABC News, recalling the story of White Sox first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu, a Cuban defector who left behind a young son.
"That can't be the kind of policies we want to promote, and so my hope is this just becomes one more part of the stitching back together of the United States and Cuba," Obama said.
Obama has asked Congress to rescind the embargo but has been blocked by the leadership of the Republican majority.
Instead the president has used executive authority to ease restrictions, including a provision that permits Cubans to earn salaries in the United States without having to sever ties with their homeland.
Halem said the new rules do not address the issue of making payments to Cuba's federation so that it would release its players.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Tom Brown)