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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

(continued from page 1)

Angelos, for his part, declared the series a victory for relations between the people of the two countries "if not necessarily between the governments." He characterized protests in Baltimore as "very slight" and defended the series saying, "As long as the door is closed you can't get in, but when the door is opened grievances can be resolved, grievances on the part of the Cuban people and Cuban Americans."

The old Havana stadium had been given a face-lift for the first game. Its tall towers, looming like metal dinosaurs over the field, were newly painted and sported banners with slogans such as Baseball: Socialist Cuban Sport and Sport of the People. Major League Baseball helped out by installing new padding for the outfield fence and bringing equipment, including a tractor and dozens of wooden bats. As a concession, the Cubans agreed to forgo their aluminum bats for wooden ones. According to Major League Baseball's office in New York, the padding, bats and other items were left behind as a gift. Cubans were also instructed about techniques for grass and infield maintenance.

In the first game, the pulse was pure baseball. Orioles slugger Albert Belle smiled and signed autographs before the game, a new face for the usually sullen superstar. During batting practice, whenever he launched a bomb into the bleachers, the stadium reacted with a collective groan.

Despite a general lack of information being traded between both countries, the teams seemed somehow able to scout their opponent. The Orioles knew that Omar Linares fed on fastballs and the Cubans knew to pitch Will Clark low and away. They also knew about the realities that separated them. While Cuban players might enjoy perks such as free cars and apartments, their pay of about $20 a month is not in the same ballpark as the millions showered on major leaguers.

Scott Erickson, Baltimore's starting pitcher in the first game, summed up the combatants' motivation: "We all want to do the best we can to represent the U.S." When informed that most of the fans were invited guests of the government, Erickson said, "Forty thousand is forty thousand. It doesn't matter how they got there."

At the end of the warm-ups, Surhoff ran into Victor Mesa, a member of the coaching staff of the Cuban all-stars and a former player against whom he competed in Europe back in the early 1980s. Later, Mesa was circumspect when asked if the game might improve relations with the United States: "I think the game is a good beginning."

Every afternoon, scores of men gather in the city's Parque Central and engage in heated, loud debates about all things baseball, an event the locals call the esquina caliente, or hot corner. On an average day, the action is vocal and furious, but after the beloved Cubanos lost to the Orioles the arguments reached a higher plane. Many argued about the players chosen to represent Cuba. "They were the team of Castro, not the team of Cuba!" one man yelled, referring to the president's role in the all stars' selection. Others lamented the absence of the great infielder Antonio Pacheco, who was in the middle of the playoffs for the Cuban championship.

At that point, an American journalist, Aaron Woolf, walked into the discussion. He announced that he had a message for them from countryman Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez of the Yankees, and quickly the news spread until a large group of men surrounded Woolf. He produced a letter signed by the Yankees pitcher, which read: "To the men of La Peña, thanks for all the support." It was signed simply "El Duque."

That Cuba has some of the best baseball players in the world is evidenced by its domination in world competitions such as the Olympics. And the Cuban team proved its ability to compete even with big-league teams, as it showed in its rout of the Orioles in the return match. Granted, the Orioles, deeply mired in a slump at the time, were not the toughest competition in America. Observers also felt the Orioles players, forced to work on what would have been a rare in-season off day, did not give their best effort. Belle, in particular, seemed lackadaisical. Angelos shrugged off his team's poor performance: "It's a baseball game. We beat them in Cuba. They beat us here."

The all-stars' victory, meanwhile, set off a national celebration in Cuba. Baseball, after all, is much more than a sport in Cuba, it is a national institution, which ironically, many Cubans regard not as an American export but as an important symbol of their independence.

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