Thursday, 24 March 2016


President Obama's trip to Havana to watch the Tampa Bay Rays take on the Cuban national team was a huge news story, with the predictable condemnation from the right. Cuba remains a contentious issue in the USA, just as the US remains contentious in Cuba. But the visit reminded me that this baseball diplomacy had actually begun March 28, 1999, when the Baltimore Orioles went to Havana and played the Cubans, and another Democratic President was being vilified for allowing it to happen. Note it did not happen again for 17 years. 

Of course the real story this time was Obama, not the baseball team, going to Cuba. In retrospect it's an interesting study in role reversal: right-wing presidents can indulge in rapprochement with enemies that they would condemn were it done by a Democrat; Democrats like Clinton can indulge in financial or welfare 'reform' that would draw weak howls from the center were a Republican to try them. Certainly Obama looked a lot more relaxed doing the wave at the stadium with Raul Castro, than either then-baseball commissioner Bud Selig or Oriole owner Peter Angelos had looked with Fidel in 1999. Note too, there aren't any luxury boxes in Havana's biggest stadium.

In March, 1999 I was in Melbourne, Florida, where the story was big news, with the invective often being the lead. The piece I wrote was commissioned by the Financial Times' sports page, meant to appear on Friday 26th, two days before the game. But it was killed when their news pages decided to send a staff reporter to Havana for the Saturday paper. The perspective was somewhat different, and the history somewhat absent. 

The Orioles won that game 3-2, but the game's star was Jose Contreras, who came in to pitch in the second inning, after Jose Ibar allowed a two-run homer by Charles Johnson. Contreras pitched eight innings of two-hit ball and struck out ten; scouts noticed. He would also start the return match in Baltimore; he got shelled but Cuba won that 12-6. In 2002 Contreras left the Cuban national team at a tournament in Mexico; he was signed immediately by the New York Yanquis. 


Last season Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both smashed the Major League Baseball home run record of 61 set by Roger Maris in 1961. This Sunday, a different sort of mark, two years older than Maris’, will fall, when the Baltimore Orioles take the field in Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano against a Cuban national selection. It will be the first time in forty years that a major league team has visited Cuba, the first time since the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds played an exhibition game there in 1959, only weeks after Fidel Castro's revoilution had ousted the dictator Fulgencio Batista, the American-backed man in charge of keeping the island safe for sugar companies and mafia casinos. 
The game will mark the first major break in the embargo the United States has maintained against Cuba since 1962. Set up under pressure from Cuban exiles in the wake of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, it prohibits trade and even travel between the two countries, less than 90 miles apart. This series (the Cubans will play a return match in Baltimore in May) has already been compared with Nixon’s “ping pong diplomacy” which launched the normalizing of US relations with China. But Bill Clinton’s “baseball diplomacy” has met with fierce opposition in South Florida, where Cubans exert considerable political clout in an electorally crucial state.

Protestors picketed two of the Orioles’ spring training games in Fort Lauderdale, both against Miami’s team, the Marlins. Fewer than 200 people demonstrated against the games, but they generated a hugely disproportionate media barrage. Miami Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart likened the Orioles trip to travelling to Berlin to take part in the 1936 Olympics, or going to play in apartheid South Africa. “It would be rightfully seen by history as shameful.”

Since the agreement was announced in early March, relations between the countries have done anything but improve. Cuba cut telephone links to the US in retaliation for bills unpaid by US phone companies, and the US protested the harsh sentences meted out to four Cuban dissidents under recently enacted sedition laws. But to the baseball organisers, this has nothing to do with politics. 
This is really about the common ground that the two peoples have, apart from any positions taken by government entities,” said Orioles Executive Vice-President John Angelos. Angelos’ father Peter, owner of the team, spent three years laying the groundwork for the series. It’s been a priority for Peter Angelos for years,” says Orioles press director John Maroon. “These are two countries that share a passion for baseball.”

Baseball is America’s national pastime, but it may be Cuba’s national obsession. Fidel Castro himself was a pitcher for the law faculty at the University of Havana; legend has it he was scouted by the Washington Senators, which prompted the story about the two old baseball scouts discussing how different history might have been had Castro become a baseball player. One cogitates, then says, 'no, it wouldn't have made a difference. Washington were terrible then, and he wasn't good enough to change that.' Baseball's world view can be rather narrow.
When America’s National League began play in the 1870s, the Troy (New York) Haymakers boasted two Cuban players. In the apartheid years when MLB was segregated, light skinned Cubans escaped the colour bar, while others played their way into baseball’s Hall of Fame in America’s Negro Leagues. More recently, Boston’s Luis Tiant and Cincinnati’s Tony Perez became heroes in their adopted communities.
Although the flow of Cuban stars dried up following the embargo, current sluggers like Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmiero were among the generation brought to the US as infants fleeing Castro. Keeping their best players at home, Cuba's own teams, meanwhile, dominated amateur play, including the Olympics. 

International play allowed some defectors to prove the current crop of Cubans were as good as ever.
Livan Hernandez, who fled the national team during a tournament in Mexico, became the most valuable player in the Marlins’ World Series championship in 1997. His brother Orlando, confined to Cuba after Livan’s defection, nearly died escaping the island in a home-made boat. Two years later, he was winning World Series games for the New York Yankees.

Though their journeys are held up as examples of those seeking 'freedom' in America, ironically neither of the Hernandez brothers actually established residency in the United States, preferring other Caribbean islands whose players remain outside the major league baseball's amateur draft. Avoiding the US meant they were free to sign with the highest bidding team.

The Cuban team that plays the Orioles reportedly will not include players from the island’s top four teams, who are still involved in the National Series playoffs. But it will boast third-baseman Omar Linares, who has been considered the best baseball player outside the major leagues for the last decade, and is still only 28. Scouts will get their first chance to see Linares play with a wooden bat, rather than the lighter and stronger aluminium generally used in amateur play. In a major concession, Cuba agreed to the visitors’ choice of weapons. Their National Sports Institute (INDER) was quick to point out this gave the Orioles a decided advantage.

But the big story, of course, is outside the ballpark. The prospect of seeing Havana from the inside has attracted over 500 accredited media. The game will be televised nationwide in the US by the cable sports giant ESPN. “We’ve organised seven charter planes, and expedited visas with the cooperation of both governments,” explains MLB Vice-President Tim Brosnan, who points out the series is just another step in baseball’s expanding international expanding activity. For the innately conservative lords of the game, this is a commercial opportuinity, not a political statement.  “We have exhibition games in Mexico and the Dominican Republic,” he says, “and for the first time two teams will open their official season outside the US or Canada, in Monterrey Mexico. We’re also close to finalizing a season opener next year in Japan.”

Cuba has played, and usually beaten, American amateur teams for decades. But their success in Olympic and World Championship events would be threatened if MLB’s plans to allow its players to represent their home countries in international play come to fruition. “At very least, the top players from the minor leagues will play in the Sydney Olympics,” says Brosnan. 
In the days before the revolution, Havana had a top minor league team in the International League. In 1959, the Sugar Kings won the Junior World Series. Felo Ramirez broadcast that series then, and now does Spanish radio broadcasts for the Marlins.  Like many who left Cuba in the early days, he's against the series.  “I don’t like it that the Orioles play in Cuba,” he says. “If not for Castro, Havana would have a team in the major leagues right now. We wouldn’t need exhibitions.”

In Miami the spectrum of opinion extends only as far as others, like Miami Herald writer Robert Steinbank, who favour the series only  because they sees the temptations of capitalism as the ultimate threat to Castro. But even Steinbank points out the game “reveals the limits of Miami’s Cubans to steer US policy.”Even so, on Sunday as 50,000 Cuban fans fill the stadium in Havana, in Miami many will echo the frustration of Tony Perez, now Vice President of Community Relations for the Marlins. “It’s done,” he says, “there’s nothing we can do about it.”

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