Ties to Cuba Enhance and Entangle Jorge Mas’s Marlins Bid


In May 2008, Barack Obama spoke with Mas Santos in Miami

By JAMES WAGNER, The New York Times

Throughout his life, Jorge Mas Santos has had a passion for Cuba, family, business and sports.

Now, as one of the wealthiest people in Miami and a serious contender to buy the Miami Marlins, Mas may be able to combine his interests in a way that would have an impact on baseball and, perhaps, the larger world of politics.

In Mas — who inherited his family’s business from his father, Jorge Mas Canosa, who died in 1997 — baseball sees a deep-pocketed investor with strong local roots. As a Cuban-American, Mas, 54, would also give Major League Baseball its second owner of Latino background. (Arte Moreno of the Los Angeles Angels is Mexican-American.)

Operating in Miami, a city remade by Cuban exiles and other Latin American immigrants, Mas could make the Marlins the linchpin in baseball’s efforts to expand its Latino audience.

“Who better to own the Miami Marlins than someone born and raised in Miami, and with the pedigree of the Mas family?” said Raul Sanchez de Varona, who went to high school with Mas and is now a real estate developer in South Florida.

But if Mas does get the Marlins franchise, his family history could possibly affect baseball’s continuing efforts to create a working relationship with Cuba, one that would allow players from the island to join the major leagues in an orderly fashion instead of having to endure various dangers in order to defect.

It was Mas’s father, after all, who was regularly reviled by the Cuban media as the leader of “the counterrevolutionary Miami mafia” because of his longstanding efforts to cripple the government of Fidel Castro.

Those efforts began after the elder Mas fled Cuba in 1960, not long after Castro took power. Jorge Mas Canosa initially advocated armed struggle to overthrow Castro but later shifted to determined advocacy, founding the Cuban American National Foundation in 1981 and making it a powerful lobbying group against Castro in Washington.

But Mas’s attitude toward Cuba appears to have moved away from his father’s tough stance. Back in 1999, he did sound like his father when he spoke out strongly against the decision by the Baltimore Orioles to play two exhibition games against the Cuban national team, a move that was backed by the administration of President Bill Clinton.

In an opinion piece in The Washington Times, Mas argued that the baseball diplomacy being practiced by the Clinton administration was “ill-conceived and ill-timed” and shifted focus away from “human rights abuses under Fidel Castro’s ruthless dictatorship.”

But just two years later, several members of the foundation’s board quit, contending the group was, in fact, starting to soften its stance toward Cuba under Mas’s leadership. “Institutions evolve and strategies evolve,” Mas responded at the time.

And when President Barack Obama, in his second term, acted to re-establish diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, Mas advised him and expressed his support. He said last month in an interview with El País that he wanted to see Cuba enter a “modern era,” and that desire took precedence over continuing a “war against the Castros.”

What Cuba would think of all this if Mas does take over the Marlins remains to be seen. The country is now led by Raúl Castro, who succeeded Fidel, his ailing brother, in 2008. Fidel Castro died last year.

At the All-Star Game this month, which was played in Miami and which Mas attended, Commissioner Rob Manfred brushed aside a reporter’s question about the Mas family’s longstanding activism in connection with Cuba and instead focused on the strong links between the family and Miami.

“One of the things we always like to see in an ownership group is deep, deep roots in the community,” Manfred said. “I’m not concerned with anybody’s particular political beliefs.”

Mas himself has not publicly addressed his bid for the Marlins, and he did not respond to several requests for comment for this article. But those who know him describe him as a driven businessman and committed civic leader with, among other things, an abiding interest in sports.

“He loves his Miami and he loves his Cuban heritage,” said Arthur Laffer, the well-known economist from the Reagan administration and a longtime ally of the Mas family.

“Having an in-house owner makes a lot of difference,” Laffer added. “He’ll go to the games. He’ll rain pride on Miami.”

A new owner, especially a local one who understands the diverse cultural landscape of South Florida, could inject new energy into a franchise that has not reached the playoffs since winning the 2003 World Series. The team consistently ranks among the worst in attendance despite a $650 million retractable-dome stadium that debuted in 2012 and was paid for almost entirely by the city and county.

The team’s current owner, Jeffrey Loria, wants to sell the Marlins for an estimated $1.2 billion, nearly eight times what he paid for the club 15 years ago. He is an unpopular owner who has come under fire over the years for failing to invest enough to improve the on-field product.

He is now apparently choosing among three bidders. One group is led by Derek Jeter, the former Yankees great, who has a waterfront home in Tampa, Fla. Tagg Romney, son of Mitt Romney, the 2012 presidential candidate, counts Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, in his group.

And then there is Mas, who through his personal fortune is believed to be putting more of his own money into the bidding than anyone else in the three groups. Mas sat with Loria during the All-Star Game.

A person with knowledge of the bidding competition said Mas extended an offer to Jeter last month to join forces, with the understanding that Jeter would run the Marlins’ baseball operations if Major League Baseball awarded Mas the franchise.

But the offer, that person said, was rejected by Jeter, who preferred to continue his own bid.

Mas has expressed interest in the Marlins before. In 1997, he considered investing in a group vying to buy the team from Wayne Huizenga, the owner then. Now, 20 years later, he is trying again.

Mas grew up around sports. He played basketball regularly with his father and brothers in the backyard of their home in Pinecrest, Fla., an affluent suburb in Miami-Dade County. The games were roughhouse affairs, said Joe Garcia, a family friend and former United States congressman.

“The father said, ‘Better to foul someone than let them take the shot,’” Garcia said. “It was very physical basketball.”

Mas was also a middle infielder on his high school baseball team. His head coach was Jim Hendry, who would later become general manager of the Chicago Cubs and now serves as a special assistant with the Yankees.

Mas’s wealth comes from MasTec, of which he is chairman, a company that made its name by digging trenches and laying telecommunications cables during South Florida’s boom. The company expanded nationally and became the first Latino-owned company to crack $1 billion in revenue in 1998. Last year it had revenue of $5.1 billion.

It is all a far cry from when Mas’s father arrived in the United States and began working as a milkman. From there he joined a telecommunications utility company, Iglesias y Torres, and ultimately became the owner, renaming it Church & Tower. As the business flourished and merged with a similar company, MasTec was formed.

At the same time, the senior Mas took on a highly visible role in urging a tough stance toward Fidel Castro.

“He was the George Washington of the free Cubans,” Laffer said.

There are reminders of the Mas family’s story all over Miami. A middle school in southwest Miami is named after Mas’s father, and the mascot is a paladin. A portion of Southwest 157th Avenue near the school was renamed Mas Canosa Paladin Avenue. The youth center in the city of Sweetwater, west of downtown Miami, is named after Mas’s father as well.

The family’s charitable foundation gives scholarships to students of Cuban descent. And Mas has served on the board at the business school of his alma mater, the University of Miami. He and his two brothers, all graduates of Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, have all worked in the family business, and also fund a program for gifted students at the school.

At the time of his death, Mas’s father was one of the richest Latino businesspeople in the United States, with a net worth of $100 million. He groomed his eldest son to run the company so that he could spend as much time as possible on the Cuban American National Foundation.

“He inherited a great company from his father,” said Laffer, who has served on the boards of the foundation and MasTec. “There were some rough periods there as he transitioned. And then he kept it great, and made it even greater.”

When his father died of cancer at 58, Mas felt a responsibility to carry on the work at the foundation, although some friends advised against it.

“His father had taken on this mythical existence,” said Garcia, who at one point was executive director of the foundation. “I worried that it would be really hard on him. He did it because he was worried about the course of the institution his father had created.”

It had, Garcia said, skewed “too much to the right.”

“No one can be their father,” Garcia added. He said Mas had proved to be pragmatic in the way his attitudes toward Cuba had evolved in the years after his father’s death, and indeed those views are finding more and more welcome ears among Cuban-Americans.

The new wave of Cuban immigrants with family still on the island, or the younger generation of Cubans born in the United States, have been more willing to accept the thaw that was heightened by Obama’s actions. Even some older Cuban-Americans have agreed with the establishment of diplomatic relations and the easing of travel restrictions.

Sanchez de Varona, the South Florida developer, a second-generation Cuban-American, grew up hearing about the effects of the Communist regime in Cuba from his family. But he acknowledged that perspectives change. He, himself, ended up visiting Cuba last fall.

“I don’t know where George’s dad would have been with all of this,” Sanchez de Varona said, using Jorge Mas’s Anglicized nickname from high school. “But George’s dad was a very intelligent man. Maybe he would have realized it was time for a change.”

In March 2016, the Obama administration and Major League Baseball worked together to arrange a game in which the Tampa Bay Rays played the Cuban national team in Havana. Major League Baseball and Cuba discussed ways for Cuban players to sign with an American team without having to defect, often in harrowing circumstances.

President Trump has sought to roll back some of the changes that Obama instituted in connection with Cuba, and those efforts, too, could have an impact on baseball’s interest in reaching some sort of agreement with Cuba about its players.

Either way, Mas could soon find himself as one of baseball’s select group of 30 owners.

Or as Garcia put it: “I’m sure it’s not lost on Jorge or M.L.B. or the people of Cuba that this son of an immigrant is now in contention to buy the ball team.”

Rafael Lima, a professor at the University of Miami, pointed to the story of “a rags-to-riches family in which the kid, the heir of this empire, now can be the owner of this baseball team, which in Cuba is a huge symbol.”

“I’d even think that in Cuba, owning the Marlins is more of a symbol of success than MasTec, a construction company,” Lima said.

And then there was the viewpoint of Rafael Villa, a Marlins fan who lives in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami and was sitting outside Marlins Park during the All-Star Game.

Villa said that he fled Cuba 40 years ago but that Mas’s more moderate stance toward the island did not bother him. “Things have to change, my friend,” he said.

What really was important, Villa added, was an upgrade in the fortunes of the team.

“I’d love to see a new owner, someone who gets and keeps good players,” he said. “People come to see the stars. I want to come here and see my stars.”


Your Editor Encourages: Jorge Mas was my friend, though we differed on Cuba. His sons’ love for baseball is unifying.