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What A Thaw In Cuba Relations Means For Baseball

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

How every week I look forward to saying, time for BJ Leiderman's Sports theme.

(MUSIC)

SIMON: Could more Cuban baseball players be headed for the Major Leagues now that relations between the two countries will be normalized? What about boxers? For that matter, ballet dancers? We're joined by Howard Bryant of espn.com and ESPN the magazine.

Howard, thanks for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: We don't expect an immediate influx, right?

BRYANT: No. I don't think we're going to see that right now because there are so many other hurdles that have to be overcome first. Number one, I think that the difference is if you're going to be a Cuban player allowed to play in the United States with just the deal that is in place now, you would pay taxes to the Castro government and the United States doesn't allow that. So what happens is that the players who want to come here have to defect the old-fashioned way. And as we've seen with some of the players, Yasiel Puig for example with the Los Angeles Dodgers, that process still requires a lot of danger. It's - a lot of danger is involved there and we've seen with the Mexican drug cartels to try to funnel those players out of Cuba to a third nation so they can play in the United States. When the relationships normalize and those sort of currents have to go away - once those go away then maybe you'll see something different. But right now the relationship hasn't changed from the government standpoint. The embargo still has to be lifted in order for there to be that pipeline that U.S. baseball teams are salivating over.

SIMON: Well, but also what's the concern about the Cuban government? I mean, you know, there are U.S. pro basketball players that are playing, as you know, for Russian and Chinese teams. The U.S. government doesn't tell Tim Howard, the great U.S. goalie, that he can't play in the English Premier League.

BRYANT: Well, the difference is the relationship between Cuba and the United States. It's the relationship between the United States government and Fidel Castro. It's been that way for 50 years. And I was thinking about this. It doesn't really make a great deal of sense in a lot of ways. It's not as though China's human rights record or Russia's human rights record is very good either. This is simply the relationship between these two countries. And because this relationship has been what it's been since 1962 then you're not going to have any change until the stroke of a pen from government and until the Congress comes in and says, OK it's time to undo all of this. And then we'll see what happens, then we'll see if the ballet dancers can come here. We'll see if the boxers can come. But until that happens - I mean, I love the - just the idea of it made me think of the old days when you had the Havana Sugar Kings and you had the Brooklyn Dodgers training in Havana in spring training in 1947 with Jackie Robinson. But those relationships aren't going to change until Congress decides that they're honing to figure out a way to reconcile all of the old baggage whether, you know, from the assets control to Helms-Burton, to all of it. There's a long, long, long way to go.

SIMON: I want to ask you about basketball before we go. Let's turn there to the Golden State Warriors. They are on a tear.

BRYANT: They're a great team.

SIMON: And I happen to know that their coach, Steve Kerr, listens to this program.

BRYANT: (Laughter).

SIMON: And he values your opinion.

BRYANT: That's right. No pressure there, Coach. Well, anyway I think the Golden State Warriors are a great team. They're at a 16 game win streak. They're 22-3 right now. I still don't think that they're that much better than anybody else because the Western Conference is so loaded. It wouldn't surprise me if they didn't make it. There have been a lot of teams that had 16 game win streaks and only a couple of them have actually won the championship. The problem is is that they're really, really good right now, at 19 games over 500. Even if they just go 500 the rest of the season, they're going to have one of the greatest records of all time. And that's going to create a lot of pressure for them to perform in June. It's still a long way to go, but let's see what they do as we get closer to the promised land. I mean, we have to wait for the All-Star break too anyway.

SIMON: And playoff basketball is different than the regular season.

BRYANT: It's very different. And once again, I still don't think you can win shooting as far out as they do. But they've got two great players. They've got the Splash Brothers, you've got Steph Curry who is one of the players you should pay to watch - and anybody who loves basketball would love watching him - and Klay Thompson, probably the best backcourt in the NBA, so much fun to watch.

SIMON: It's a little too early to look forward to a Cleveland Golden State final so...

BRYANT: Well, it's not - because I think that you have to watch how these players go. I think that - and how the teams play. I think that - Cleveland obviously because they've got a lot of problems. They're not even the best team.

SIMON: But Cleveland rocks.

BRYANT: (Laughter). They've got LeBron back.

SIMON: Yeah, all right. We've got a few months to work on that. OK.

Howard Bryant of espn.com and ESPN the magazine, thanks so much for being with us.

BRYANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.