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The Week In Sports: MLB, Cuba Reach Historic Deal


And now a couple of chestnuts roasting on an open fire (laughter) or, as we say around here, time for sports.


SIMON: There is a deal on the table between the U.S. and Cuba to allow the best baseball players in Cuba to play in the United States and Canada without having to defect. But it's not as simple as just letting them sign. Here's my fellow chestnut, Tom Goldman. How are you, Tom? Happy holidays.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Smile when you say that when you call me a chestnut. Good morning.

SIMON: I said a couple of chesnuts. Some of the best baseball players in the world, obviously, are Cuban, but their government has not let them just sign a contract and play wherever in the world they want to - U.S., Japan, any place. What is in this new agreement?

GOLDMAN: Well, Scott, it would allow for easier signing of Cuban ballplayers and safer passage for players from Cuba to the major leagues. As you know, historically, it's often a harrowing journey. The Cuban government hasn't allowed players to leave, so they've had to defect, leave family behind, take big risks to get to the majors, you know, unscrupulous agents.

SIMON: And not be able to come back and see their family typically in the offseason.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, exactly, and there are unscrupulous agents and criminal elements, you know, waiting to extort players and kidnap them. This agreement, which grew out of more relaxed relations between Cuba and the U.S. during the Obama administration, would let players sign with MLB while they're in Cuba, come to North America on a work visa and then return to Cuba in the offseason.

SIMON: Do they get to keep their salaries?

GOLDMAN: They do. They do. And this is an interesting point. You know, this is all going to depend on the Trump administration's approval. And the White House sounds hostile to the idea so far. A statement from a senior administration official criticized the proposal because - and I'm quoting here - "a Cuban body would garnish the wages of hard-working athletes who simply seek to live and compete in a free society." Now, a source in baseball I spoke to said wages will not be garnished. At most, the source says there will be, like, a 2 percent national tax. But other than that, the agreement guarantees no one's going to touch the money players get from MLB. Scott, one other thing about money, which is always involved in baseball. Major League clubs that sign Cuban players will have to pay what's called a release fee to a Cuban - to the Cuban Baseball Federation. There's concern by our government that the money might end up in the wrong hands - the Cuban government. Now, there are no guarantees some of the money won't go that way, but baseball officials in this country say while the proposed agreement isn't perfect, it'll be a lot better for Cuban players and a lot better for baseball to have this better pipeline to some of the world's best players.

SIMON: I want to ask you about two American Olympians, both 23 years old, both women, at different points in their career. Mikaela Shiffrin won a slalom today in France, the great skier.

GOLDMAN: Right. Right. Yes, absolutely - breaking news. She won that slalom. It was her 35th slalom victory in her career, ties the women's all-time record. Also at 23, she's now the youngest skier ever, women or men, to have 50 World Cup races to have won them in all disciplines. We'll have to wait till 2022 to watch her do her thing at the next Winter Olympics. But until then, watch her if you can. She's really special.

SIMON: But there's a 23-year-old swimmer who's going to be saying goodbye to professional competition.

GOLDMAN: Yes, Scott, unlike Defense Secretary Mattis, Missy Franklin really is retiring...

SIMON: (Laughter) Yes.

GOLDMAN: ...At the ripe old age of 23. Now, you have to go back a couple of Summer Olympics to remember her true greatness in the pool. In London 2012, she won four gold medals, five total, as a 17-year-old. At the World Championships the next year, she won six golds. And at that point, there was talk she was going to be a medal machine like Michael Phelps. She had a bubbly personality to boot. But then it all kind of crashed. Her body betrayed her with injuries. She battled depression. She had surgery on both shoulders last year. And she never could beat the pain. And it turns out, her late teenage years were her heyday, but she is ever-positive. She says she's choosing to look at retirement as a new beginning, which one can realistically say at 23.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, NPR's Tom Goldman, thanks. You know, we have run out of time before I could sing (singing) they're the pride and joy of Illinois, Chicago Bears - bear down.

GOLDMAN: February, Scott, you'll be celebrating.

SIMON: Oh, really? Tom Goldman, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on