Baseball in Cuba

I watched a baseball game today; not all of it, a couple of innings. It was between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. For Tampa, it counted as a preseason game, which is to say, it didn’t matter at all. For the Cuban team, it was likewise an exhibition. But in the crowd were two Presidents: Barack Obama and Raul Castro. Big deal game, in other words.

But why? Because this: for the first time since the good ship Maine’s boiler blew and we blamed it on terrorists, the United States is edging, tip-toeing towards a policy towards Cuba that makes a tiny bit of sense. In 2014, President Obama normalized relations with Cuba, and re-opened the US embassy in Havana. The next step would seem to be lifting the US trade embargo, which absolutely cannot happen in 2016, because it’s an election year and Florida is a swing state. And Cuban emigres vote.

There remain serious barriers to overcome, the biggest of which remains Cuba’s human rights record. Human Rights Watch’s 2009 report sadly concluded that Raul had kept Fidel’s repressive security apparatus largely unchanged. Freedom House continues to list Cuba as ‘Not Free,’ the category they reserve for the world’s most repressive societies. And so, at the ballgame today, as Castro urged the US to continue normalization efforts–specifically by lifting the embargo–President Obama kept the pressure on for Castro to end arbitrary arrests of dissidents.

But despite the attacks in Belgium early in the day–a situation the President was, of course, able to monitor throughout his Cuba visit–President Obama stayed for the ballgame. And that’s significant. Because baseball is one thing both countries have in common. In fact, baseball is probably now only the third most popular sport in the United States, after football and basketball. In Cuba, it’s still number one.

There have been 193 Cuban-born players in major league history, including two Hall of Famers. Tony Perez is the one Hall of Famer you’ve probably heard of. Slugging first baseman for the Big Red Machine of the ’70s. Martin Dihigo came earlier, with most of his career taking place in the ’20s and ’30s, making the Hall of Fame as a Negro League player in 1977. But there have dozens of brilliant star-quality Cuban major leaguers over the years, including Luis Tiant, Cookie Rojas, Bert Campaneris, Minnie Minosa, Tony Oliva and Mike Cuellar. And of course, some of the brightest stars of the game today are Cuban, including Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, Jose Fernandez, and Yoenis Cespedes.

Fidel Castro was an amateur baseball player, scouted, according to legend, by the old Washington Senators. He was a pitcher, had played some college ball in Cuba, but simply didn’t have the stuff to stick professionally. Still, he loved the sport, and the Cuban national team has been an international powerhouse.

But the stories of escaping ballplayers and their threatened families remain. Yasiel Puig is exactly the kind of young superstar that Cuba was always particularly anxious to keep home. He risked his life to escape, though, in a story so spectacular as to seem improbable. ESPN covered it, but I can’t link for some reason. But it left Puig in debt, to the tune of millions of dollars, to some very sketchy customers.

And of course, the whole situation stinks. A young Cuban ballplayer should have the right to play baseball where ever his talent leads him. When the Olympics or the World Baseball Classic rolls around, why not let him go back and play for the national team, just as Dirk Nowitzski does for the German national team in basketball.

And it will happen. Raul Castro is 84 years old, Fidel’s 89. The brothers won’t be in power for much longer.

No, the real question is whether raising the trade embargo even without significant human rights advances by the regime will help, or hurt. Personally, I think it’s likely to help, and think we should proceed as quickly as possible. But I understand the feelings of Cuban-Americans who disagree.

Meanwhile, the crowd in Havana watched a ballgame. The Rays won 4-1. Dayron Varona, from Cuba, led off for the Rays, and hit the first pitch he saw for a routine popout. And then the ball was retrieved, and will be sent to the Hall of Fame. James Loney, from Houston, hit a big home run. Mike Moore was the winning pitcher. And President Obama and Raul Castro did the wave. Normal ballgame stuff, at a meaningless exhibition game. A game that also couldn’t have been more important.

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