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Baseball Diplomacy

Do Two Historic Matchups of Cuban and American Teams Signal a Softening of International Tensions?
Jim Daniels
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

Carrying a large American flag under a brilliant Cuban sky, Baltimore outfielder B.J. Surhoff led his fellow Orioles onto the field at the Estadio Latinoamericano. At that same moment, the great Cuban infielder Omar Linares held the Cuban flag aloft and ushered his team out to join the Americans on the infield. A strong breeze blowing in from the Straits of Florida filled both banners smartly as the players stood at attention. Fidel himself, dressed in his green fatigues, stood with the crowd of 50,000 in hushed and respectful silence for the playing of the American national anthem. It was a powerful moment that sent chills through the most hardened journalists in attendance.

But that was late March in Cuba. More than a month later, a return game would be played in Baltimore that would put a new face on the hands-across-the-water theme of the historic matchup. What began as an extraordinary gesture of goodwill between two countries that have denounced each other's politics for four decades hit a sour note.

The two-game series between a team of Cuban all-stars and Major League Baseball's Baltimore Orioles was seen by some as a starting point for thawing relations between the United States and Cuba. The historic meeting was the first time a Major League club played a Cuban team since the two nations severed diplomatic ties during the Kennedy administration. At the first game of the series, a pitchers' duel that went 11 innings before the Orioles pushed a run across for a 3-2 victory, the excitement was mostly confined to the action and festivities on the diamond. But at the second contest, diplomacy and the Cubans' 12-6 win were overshadowed by anti-Castro protests, a spectacular on-field assault, and the defection of one of Cuba's top former pitchers.

The atmosphere couldn't have been much more the opposite at the first game. After the introductions and the playing of the Cuban anthem, El Presidente marched onto the field to a thunderous chant of "Fi-del! Fi-del!" that lifted out of the stands in a wild chorus. Never mind that the stadium was packed with Communist party favorites; the place was rocking.

The last time a Major League squad played a Cuban team, Cuban baseball players were an accepted part of the big league landscape. Cuban athletes, such as Conrado Marrero, now 84, who threw out the first pitches at the March game and had played for the Washington Senators during the 1950s, traveled freely to the United States. American teams played exhibitions in Cuba. But Castro's revolution, the missile crisis, a failed U.S. invasion and the embargo ended that.

If the March game was a day when politics took a vacation, then the rematch, played in early May, brought the issues back into focus. While the hospitable Orioles played Cuban music over the public-address system, and the barbecue stand run by former Os' great Boog Powell added rice and beans to its menu, the enduring image from that contest was of Cuban umpire Cesar Valdez body-slamming an anti-Castro demonstrator to the turf. The protester, one of four arrested for running onto the field during the game, carried a banner that read Freedom--Strike Out Against Castro. Crowds of Cuban-American demonstators had traveled from Florida, New York and New Jersey to demonstrate against the Castro government inside and outside the stadium. The normal security force was more than tripled at Camden Yards and joined by Cuban and U.S. immigration personnel, presumably in anticipation of defections from the Cuban team. Despite their efforts, one member of the 335-member Cuban delegation, a pitching coach for the Cuba team, Rigoberto Herrera Betancourt, sought political asylum at Baltimore's central police station.

The games were the result of a major diplomatic effort that involved negotiations between the American and Cuban governments. The matchups drew the attention of the world media. For the first game, which was broadcast live on ESPN, Cuba's International Press Center issued more than 600 press credentials, with journalists from Europe, Japan, Korea, Italy, Australia and across North America covering the game. Among those refused credentials were representatives of the Miami Herald and Radio Marti, both media outlets that take anti-Castro stances.

Cuba had its own immigration problems in coming to Baltimore. In that case, they almost proved a deal breaker. Cuban officials threatened to pull out at the last minute when some of its entourage were refused visas. The U.S. State Department relented in the eleventh hour.

The series was the brainchild of Baltimore owner Peter Angelos, who, despite a fractious relationship with most of other team owners, won the blessing of baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Angelos said the games were the result of three and a half years of negotiations. While he has been accused by less ingenuous observers as coveting some of the Cuban talent, Angelos said he undertook the mission for humanitarian reasons and took every precaution to prevent defections. "I'm always interested in our country having better relations with other countries, especially countries in the Western Hemisphere."

Angelos and Selig spent the first game sitting behind home plate on either side of Fidel Castro. "That's a very complex subject," Angelos said when asked to comment on Castro. "If you're asking was he a perfect host: absolutely." He added that while he no longer smokes cigars, he was very tempted to begin again by the number of great smokes offered him on the trip to Havana. El Jefe's manners aside, it was a galling scene for those opposed to ending the embargo, a scene that a Miami Herald columnist would characterize as "revolting."

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