Baseball and Cuba -- two hidebound institutions needing reform -- get a public relations boost from an extra-inning

Published March 29, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

HAVANA -- All the background details of Sunday's groundbreaking baseball game between the Baltimore Orioles and a squad of top Cubans had been painstakingly negotiated beforehand, but advance work takes you only so far. No one knew just how it would be when each team paraded out onto the infield at Havana's Estadio Latinoamerica before the game, U.S. and Cuban flags lifted high in the air before them.

That sense of suspense, and the 40 years that had passed since a major-league team played in Cuba, helped explain the sense of gravity and wonder. A crowd of 50,000 mostly hand-picked Cubans stood reverently for the playing of the Cuban national anthem and then remained ramrod still for the Star Spangled Banner, that world-famous symbol of the historic enemy to the north. This was true even of Cuban President Fidel Castro, decked out in his usual fatigues, there in the front row flanked by baseball commissioner Bud Selig -- himself the embattled leader of an institution in need of modernization and reform -- and Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who has wrangled with Selig in the past.

Castro "stood very straight and paid his respects, as I did during the Cuban anthem," Angelos said just in front of his waiting limousine after the Orioles had come back to win the game, 3-2, in 11 innings. "That was great, it made the trip worth it right there. That's what we were looking for, that sort of camaraderie."

Major League Baseball may need Cuba almost as much as Cuba needed Major League Baseball. The new emphasis on internationalizing the game is no idle impulse. This year's baseball season opens next Sunday with a game in Monterrey, Mexico, between the Colorado Rockies and the San Diego Padres. Baseball knows that it can't sit back after one comeback season, the glorious summer of McGwire and Sosa. It knows that arrogance and complacency are what got it into trouble in the first place, and it knows more labor troubles could be on the way after the 2001 season. So it has to do everything it can to nourish itself by taking chances and trying to find new fans.

The game in Cuba was a step in the right direction, for baseball and for Cuba. As much as the Orioles players who were whisked into town for less than a day talked about this being "just a ballgame," there was no denying the emotion during pregame ceremonies. The U.S. national anthem has played in Havana before, of course, during visits of college teams and at amateur events. But since no major-league ballclub had played in Havana in so long, Sunday's gathering on a steamy afternoon had an air of potential significance that was lost on no one.

I have covered far too many sporting events in the United States during which the anthem is a meaningless ritual, and I thought I'd never again feel that gulp-back-the-emotion disorientation I felt as a kid visiting the Baltimore fort where Francis Scott Key penned the song. But standing only a few dozen rows behind Castro and his green fatigue cap and listening to the ballpark's ancient speakers ringing with what sounded like a recording of a recording of a recording, it felt good to be thrilled to hear a celebration of America, even on a day when fighting in the Balkans was escalating half a world away. (Poor Cuba -- it has been pushed off the international stage twice in 15 months, once when the Monica Lewinsky story broke the week of the pope's visit, and now, with war in the Balkans taking top billing in international news.) But even Cubans used to railing against American imperialism sounded hopeful about the future.

"We showed we can play at the same level as the best teams," said Cuban third baseman Omar Linares. He's the biggest star in Cuban baseball, and a darling of Castro's regime, and it was as if the game was following a Communist Party script when Linares rolled a two-out single through the left side to tie the game 2-2 in the eighth, cranking up the suspense until Harold Baines finally put the Orioles ahead with a run-scoring single in the top of the 11th.

"Our baseball is strong," Linares said. "I think this game might help our two nations have a better understanding of each other. We need this game to occur every year. We can beat them when we play them again."

The game was nothing like the rollicking explosion of mad love that
erupted in the stadium each of the two previous nights for the first two
games of Cuba's version of the World Series. Both those games between
Industriales (the Yankees of Cuba) and Santiago (from the
city where dictator Fulgencio Batista surrendered to Castro) were attended
by die-hard fans, the kind who know a routine fly ball the second it's hit;
fans who treat baseball as a delirious, sensual celebration of the game and
of the style Cubans bring to playing it.
Sunday was much different. Admittance was invitation-only, so the
crowd was much more likely to lapse into numb quiet. It was also much
whiter, and much more confused about the game of baseball: During one
embarrassing sequence, the fans erupted ecstatically twice in a row on
routine ground balls, rather than making that low buzzing sound crowds make
when they see a team stranding a runner at third base.

But you have to expect that for a massive, internationally televised
gathering with Castro himself front and center. The commandante appears strong
for a man in his early 70s, but there's no question a cloudy look has begun
to creep into the once-fierce gaze. Talks with regular Cubans during
several days in Havana left little doubt that more and more Cubans feel
political change coming, some month or some year soon, and are ready to
assert themselves, if only marginally.

"The time will come when the two governments will have to come
together," said Javier Velasquez, a 45-year-old mechanical engineer. "This
game may make the difference. I saw the Berlin Wall fall with my own eyes.
Now I ... see a U.S. team play in Havana.

"This is a town that lives sad and it shouldn't. We've lost our fear.
The things I'm telling you I would never have said 10 years ago. We want Cuba to open
to the world, and the world to open to Cuba. Fidel doesn't have to go,
because I think he is the man who has done the most for Cuba. We just want
an equal chance."

Castro gained valuable exposure in the United States with Sunday's game,
especially since the ESPN cameras brought real-time proof that Angelos and
Selig were enjoying Castro's company -- not shrinking away from him as a
monster or international outcast, but instead laughing at his jokes.
"It was very enjoyable," said Angelos, famous in baseball for his
stubborn independence of mind. "He was very generous, and very hospitable.
He's a very charming man."

Charm only goes so far, but currents have been set in motion.
At least that's the view of no less shrewd a figure than former Oakland A's
president Sandy Alderson, now in charge of the game's internationalization
as baseball's No. 3 official. He played a key role in setting up Sunday's
game, visiting Cuba twice before this weekend, and he too emerged from
meeting Castro at a Saturday night reception with a different perspective.
"I was impressed by his command of detail," Alderson told me before
the game. "He seemed to know a lot about the development of baseball in the
United States and other countries."

That comment should be seen as a much lower-profile version of
Margaret Thatcher's famous pronouncement that Mikhail Gorbachev was someone
the West could do business with. Castro is no Gorbachev. He's the opposite
of a reformer, dead-set against change. But many in the know about Cuba
believe that nothing has helped Castro retain power more than the embargo,
which gives him an excuse for the privation his people suffer. And the
argument for ending the embargo could gain force in Washington if momentum
toward closer ties builds through cultural events like Sunday's game, or
the musical festival Sunday night at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana, which
featured the Indigo Girls, Jimmy Buffett and Peter Frampton (still
alive!), among others.

"My whole point of view is that this is recognition of a cultural bond
that exists between the two countries," Alderson said. "It doesn't speak to
our economic systems. It doesn't speak to our political systems. It speaks
to what we have in common. It's a testimony to the kind of cooperation that
can exist. I'm happy we've been able to establish this contact. I think it
will be increasingly important as baseball expands its international scope."

At the very least, the event may have punctured one myth about Cuba -- that Castro was a left-handed pitching prospect with an excellent curveball. Alderson said
he discussed the point with Castro and came away convinced that was a myth.
"He said he was perhaps a better basketball player than a baseball
player," Alderson said. "That was illuminating."

If Castro overplayed his baseball past for propaganda value, who could blame him? Soccer was Cuba's most
popular sport up until the 1930s, but baseball has long since taken over as the
national sport. Driving through La Habana Vieja or El Vedado or any other
part of the capital, you can count on seeing baseball games played in
countless alleys, streets, parks and abandoned lots.

Havana has become a hot tourist spot for Europeans not restricted from
Cuban travel by their governments, the way Americans are, and Sunday's game
is sure to inspire more true baseball fans to make the trip from the United
States via third countries. Countless American writers have lovingly
recalled playing stickball as youths in Brooklyn or Manhattan, a tradition
that seems lost. But watching Cuban kids lined up in an alley to swat a
ball made of tape-over-string-over-tape-over-crumpled paper, it feels as if
that old primordial love of the game isn't gone, it's just welled up
somewhere else.

"I've lived here my whole life, 30 years," Niurea Hopuy explained as
she watched her 5-year-old son, Hector, take his turn at bat in an alley
in Casa Blanca, over on the far side of Havana Harbor. "That whole time,
nothing has changed. Every day, there is a baseball game here."

The passion that characterizes
Cubans' approach to the game explains why they took Sunday's game so
seriously. The fans at the ballpark greeted the arrival of the Orioles on
the field with childlike wonder, and as soon as Albert Belle took his turn
in batting practice, the mood lifted another notch or two.

Belle has tended to be overlooked in recent years, especially with
Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa putting on such a show last summer, but he
could easily be considered the most dangerous hitter in baseball. Since
1991 he leads the majors in homers, RBIs and extra-base hits, among other
offensive categories, and now that he has signed with the Orioles as a free
agent, he could finally have a chance to make a mark with
people paying attention.

They were paying attention on Sunday, all right. Belle settled into his
angry-looking, corkscrew batter's stance and on his first turn in the cage,
drilled three consecutive homers to left. As Orioles manager Ray Miller
noted after the game, power is the one area in which Cuban players are lacking,
which helps explain why Belle's hitting show made such an impression. A
buzz took over the stands, as countless people turned to each other and
asked the Spanish version of "Did you see that?"

When Belle stepped out to
let someone else take a turn, the applause grew into a sustained roar, and
he turned to the fans, smiled and gave them a wave. Belle, a private,
intelligent man, has often been portrayed by American sportswriters as a
sociopath, but he has sides to his character the press does not
understand. He was moved by the warm reception in Havana, and obviously
felt a certain kinship with the Cuban fans. Even the way they pronounce his name -- all one word: Albertbelllllllll -- somehow gets across the man's constant threat to explode
at the plate.

"I guess they're used to controversy here," he joked as he walked

Belle went 0-for-5 in the game, and didn't look especially good, but
when Cubans look back on the game, foremost in many minds will be their
discovery of the man's savage power and his appreciation of their

Sunday's unforgettable game in Havana was
a fitting kickoff for the coming season. It served as a reminder that the player to watch this year is almost
certainly Belle, a man who doesn't mind being disliked, so long as he gets
to keep taking out his frustration on the baseball. And combined with next week's season opener in Mexico, it helped underscore that baseball's future is increasingly Latin. The Cubans' tough showing -- fighting the Orioles to lose 3-2 in the 11th inning -- has many looking forward to their rematch in Baltimore on May 3.

By Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

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