I don’t know if baseball will ever-ever become the favorite past time of sports fans in America. The NFL has seen to that.
But baseball is still very popular, and never more so than what we will see this morning (10:30am) PST from Havana, as the Tampa Bay Rays play an exhibition game against the Cuban national team.
MLB officials will be there. President Obama will be there. The Castro regime will be there. And baseball fans across the US and the Carribbean will be there in spirit, watching, if not in person.
The Cold War with Russia and Cuba is long ago. We have new enemies now creating global tensions. But the 90-miles of Gulf Coast waters seemed like a solar system distance after Russia and Fidel Castro took over the island in 1959.
Baseball was beloved in Cuba. The 1930s thru the 1950s saw a tremendous pathway of Cuban stars to the states, from Minnie Minoso, to Camilo Pascaul, Pedro Ramos to Tony Oliva, Luis Tiant and others.. . Baseball in Cuba gave us great leaders in Bobby Maduro and Nap Reyes, names only old timers would recognize, but names who influenced many coming from Cuba to the US.
The Havana Sugar Kings were a legendary minor league team in the International League. The Cuban winter leagues saw great teams in Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, and many other Cubsn cities, where major legue players wintered abroad, played ball, and played blackjack in the casinos.
When Castro took over in 1959, it was as if time ceased. There would be no Cuba, as we knew it as young baseball fans, for 40-years. Time ceased in Cuba too economically. A thrid world country, no facilities like running water and electricity grids in parts of cities. You can see Edsels and DeSotos still on the streets of Havana. Poverty is rampant.
Slowly a trickle, then a tidal wave of baseball players started to defect. Rene Achoa, a Cardinals pitcher, was one of the first. then Livan and Orlando “El Duque”Hernandez. Since then, we all know the names, Puig, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Abreau and the next one to come, Lazarito. Yes Cuba has its WBC team. It has its own so-called major league Serie Nacionale, but its athletic programs are full of corruption, military interference and intimidation still.
If you talk to players of Cuban descent, Yonder Alonso in partcular, Americanized now after coming as a child, they can relate the hardships in Cuba, relayed to them by parents. Escapes thru sugar cane fields, boarding planes in the middle of the night, taking rafts, stealing boats, fearing for your life.
I am sure in Little Havana, part of the city of Miami, there will be some joy of Cuban citizenry, but there will be some resentment too, for lost family members, persecution, prosecution, and the deathly ill-fated, oft-forgotten Bay of Pigs Invasion. Our only modern day references of Cuba stretch from the Cuban Missle Crisis to Guantanamo.
Maybe today becomes more than just a game on the Grapefruit Circuit schedule for Tampa Bay. Maybe President Obama can open trade relations, and start a free flow of goods and services to Havana, and a flow of players and visitors from the island stateside and back.
Once upon a time, Cuba was special.
The antangonistic Raul Castro-Obama press conference took on nasty dimensions. Solving decades of oppression cannot be easily forgiven.
Maybe baseball can be the catalyst to fix all the ills that have plagued the island country since the Castro win over Batista.