Baseball may be a universal language, but when it comes to professional team owners, hypocrisy is the real lingua franca. And if actions speak louder than words, trouble may be in store for the SoftBank Hawks.
On June 3, SoftBank Group Corporation CEO Masayoshi Son took a bold step toward empowering entrepreneurs shackled by racial discrimination with the announcement his organization would establish a $100 million “Opportunity Growth Fund” the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
That is a truly admirable and righteous step for Son. But it raises questions about whether the owner of Japan’s best baseball team, the SoftBank Hawks, is as concerned about human rights on his own doorstep as he is in America. More specifically is it OK for the club to keep signing Cuban players who are denied adequate explanation of the deals they are entering into?
The man asking the question is Oscar Luis Colas, a powerful left-handed-hitting outfielder, who also throws in the mid-90s as a southpaw. He is now in the Dominican Republic having defected from Cuba. He now wants to fulfill his major league dream, but the Hawks have placed him on Nippon Professional Baseball’s restricted list, preventing him from going anywhere except back to Japan.
His agents, Charisse Dash and Alex Cotto, are appealing to the Hawks on the grounds that Cuban players are routinely signed without the implications of their contracts ever being explained to them or even the ability to review them in advance.
According to Colas, a few weeks after appearing in a 2017 showcase in Santiago de Cuba, he was summoned to Havana along with his mother who needed to sign his contract as he was an unmarried 18-year-old. When they arrived, they were shown the two contracts they needed to sign and received a cursory explanation.
One document was a standard contract and the other a supplemental attachment stipulating the full terms and obligations of both parties that named Cuba’s baseball federation as his agent. Colas and his mother said recently they understood that the standard non-roster developmental deal was renewable by SoftBank for up to three years.
The supplemental deal, however, ties him to SoftBank for an additional five years.
And though the deal is more lucrative than anything he could get from a major league team, Colas and his mother felt they were sold down the river by the federation without their knowledge.
According to Dash this is standard practice for players in Cuba.
“It is a commonality,” Dash said Saturday from the United States. “None of these players have their contracts adequately explained to them. I’m extremely confident that it never happens.”
A former executive who had dealings with the Cuban federation when it sought out NPB as a trading partner said, “I completely believe Colas’ story. The federation is the government, and it is eager to send players to Japan. The government sees the players as the property of the state.”
Dash cited a Cuban attorney she spoke to in a call with Colas’ mother, Karelia.
“The lawyer said, ‘It doesn’t happen. An athlete has no jurisdictional existence in Cuba,'” said Dash, who is seeking an amicable settlement with the Hawks that would be in both parties’ best interests.
The Hawks, however, have responded by saying in essence, “We have a deal. He has a lucrative contract. We expect him to honor it, period.”
So while Son can wave the Black Lives Matter flag, the team policy of saying “Whatever happens in Cuba stays in Cuba” is pretty standard for how Japanese baseball treats inexperienced Latin players of color and is more in line with what passes for race relations in Major League Baseball.
Sure, MLB loves to crow about Jackie Robinson’s triumph in breaking the color barrier. Yet, every Jackie Robinson day is complete without acknowledging that MLB itself was responsible for the barrier Robinson broke, or the fact that most clubs were not suddenly singing “kumbayah” but had to be dragged kicking and screaming into integration.
And in some respects, major league owners have found a soulmate in Masayoshi Son.
When he took over the Hawks in 2005, he was a man on a mission to have not the best baseball team in Japan, but in the world. One pillar of that is to never give away a single day of team control to a player.
Although service time manipulation is not really a custom in Japan yet, there is some indication the Hawks may have engaged in it last year to prevent their biggest star from becoming a free agent this November.
And now that the Yomiuri Giants have posted pitcher Shun Yamaguchi, the Hawks are Japan’s last holdout against the posting system.
Because the Cuban relationship benefits both the Cuban government, most players, and has become a pillar of five Hawks’ Japan titles in six years, SoftBank should be able to ask the Cubans to do more on their side to make sure a situation like Colas’ does not happen again.
That day of change, however, is not yet on the horizon. One NPB executive with knowledge of the Hawks’ business believes Son’s need for good PR could be the trigger.
“He hates bad press,” the exec said. “The second this thing looks like it’s going to blow up, he’ll put a stop to it. He doesn’t want to get torched in the media.”
“Unfortunately, because Colas is not Japanese, it’s not a story Japan’s media is interested in. They like to portray imported players as greedy and selfish and the teams as being weak for giving in to the their demands. If Colas were Japanese, the media wouldn’t stand for this shabby treatment. They’d be all over it. But he’s not and they’re not.”