By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has declared his intention to play an exhibition game in Cuba in 2016 even though a Cuban baseball official said the two sides had yet to start talks.
The game could set up a rapprochement on the diamond similar to the way the U.S. and Cuban governments have come together at the negotiating table.
Commissioner Rob Manfred told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that MLB was likely to play an exhibition game in Cuba in early 2016.
Reuters was not able to immediately reach Manfred after business hours for comment.
A Cuban baseball official said any talks would be dependent on the outcome of the ongoing negotiations between Havana and Washington.
"That may be their will, but we have not had any conversations. There is no agreement," said Antonio Diaz, spokesman for the National Baseball Directorate.
The United States and Cuba are attempting to end more than half a century of confrontation and restore diplomatic ties, a step that could lead to normal trade and travel relations.
But serious obstacles remain, including the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba. U.S. President Barack Obama wants to lift it but needs approval from the Republican-controlled Congress.
Even if the embargo were lifted, the Communist government in Havana is highly circumspect about the United States and would have to agree to any business dealings.
Cuban baseball officials would also want to address the issue of how its best players are lured off the island illegally, often risking lives in clandestine sea journeys. Cuba is likely to demand an orderly regulation of how its players are signed by Major League teams.
Moreover, Cuban baseball stadiums fall far below the standards of the Major Leagues, and teams would be hesitant to allow their players to step onto Cuban fields in their current conditions.
Still, Manfred said he was hopeful that baseball, the most popular sport in Cuba, could help with the U.S. government policy change toward the Caribbean island nation.
"To the extent that we can play a role in helping the United States government effectuate a change in policy, that we're following their lead and we're acting in a way that's consistent with what they want us to do, that's an honor for us," Manfred told the Journal.
He said the most likely time would be spring training of 2016, which would be the first game of its kind since 1999.
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)