By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE Fla. (Reuters) - Major League Baseball must allow players in Cuba to sign contracts directly with professional teams in the United States in order to receive tax breaks in Florida under a new law signed by Governor Rick Scott on Friday.
Because of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, existing MLB rules require Cuban players to enter the amateur player draft, which greatly reduces their chances of landing a big contract. In order to negotiate with teams directly, Cuban players have to establish residency in another country.
The provision was tucked into a large tax-incentive package during the 2014 legislative session in April. The bill provides up to $13 million a year in sales-tax rebates for professional sports teams for building, refurbishing or expanding stadiums.
The change was prompted by the case of Cuban slugger Yasiel Puig, a star for the Los Angeles Dodgers, among numerous others, who was smuggled out of Cuba via Mexico in 2012 in a risky venture in order to reach America.
The new law requires baseball to treat players who come directly from Cuba the same as most other immigrants and to report to the state attorney general any evidence of "human smuggling, human trafficking or the movement of individuals across national boundaries."
MLB has expressed concern about the role of human traffickers in assisting Cuban players to leave the country.
However, MLB says its policies are not to blame, noting that the Cuban government also does not allow players to sign with U.S. teams.
Since 2009, at least 20 Cuban defectors have signed MLB contracts worth a combined total of more than $300 million according to data on Baseball-Reference.com.
Another 23-year-old Cuban outfielder defected this week, official media reported on Friday, apparently in hopes of signing a lucrative contract with an MLB team.
Yasmani Tomas, a member of the Cuban national team and the Havana-based Industriales club, left Cuba "through unscrupulous, illegal human trafficking," the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma reported.
Compliance by the league with the Florida law will permit the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays to compete for up to $3 million a year from the $13 million pot of state funding provided by the bill.
The bill also will apply to expansion plans of Major League Soccer in Miami and Orlando, renovation of Daytona International Speedway and other pro sports development projects.
(Editing by David Adams and Bill Trott)