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Baseball Diplomacy

Do Two Historic Matchups of Cuban and American Teams Signal a Softening of International Tensions?
| By Jim Daniels | From 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."

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.

At the end of the last century, when Cuba was still under the iron grip of Spain, Cubans were forced to accept a number of Spanish cultural traditions, such as soccer. It was against the backdrop of the 1898 revolution that baseball was introduced to the island.

Following the first game, Castro, who did not attend the second game, in Baltimore, held a private reception for the players and dignitaries involved with the series. That function had all the trappings of a political affair. Inside an ornate room in the government palace, Castro, dressed in a stylish blue suit and red tie, was flanked by his interpreter and Ray Miller, manager of the Orioles.

The economic difference between the two classes of players was underscored as they met Fidel, the Orioles players dressed in designer clothes and the Cubans wearing warm-ups. After the formal reception, everyone sat down to an elegant dinner where the Cuban president worked the room like any politician, walking from table to table and addressing dozens of American guests by name.

At an ice cream parlor in Havana, a discussion about Cuba's future among common folk observed no such politesse and included views that would probably not please the Cuban government. One woman was asked about what the Cuban people think about the future. "They don't form a thought about the future," she said. "They are busy surviving in the present." Pressed about what would happen to Cuba when Fidel dies, she said she feared the worst since no one is in place to take over for Castro. An American visitor added that Fidel is the oil that keeps the machine of government going. "No," she said, "he is the machine."

Jim Daniels is a freelance writer based in Maine.