Foul ball

The State Department interferes with the second Cuba-Orioles game.

Published April 30, 1999 1:00PM (EDT)

Now batting from the right, President Clinton.

The Clinton administration's top diplomats, who took a tepid step toward Cuba with baseball diplomacy last month, have turned Monday's exhibition matchup between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national team into a fantasy-league replay of the Cold War, with Kennedy-style dirty tricks and the prospect of anti-Castro agitation in the stands.

Fans of baseball like to tout the game's seamless links to history, but this might be too much, even for nostalgia buffs. Bay of Pigs: Get over it.

Only days ago, with the State Department's blessing, the Miami Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue was threatening to boot the Cuban team's two jetliners when they landed, under authority of a court lien imposed after Cuban fighters downed a Brothers to the Rescue plane in 1996.

That plan was dodged when go-betweens persuaded Orioles owner Peter Angelos to charter his own planes for the Cubans, who hosted the Baltimore club in Havana last month.

The opponents of U.S.-Cuban detente in the State Department, however, haven't given up. So far they've managed to deny Cuban officials visas and a welcoming reception for their team, while approving hostile flyovers by Brothers to the Rescue during the game. They've also arranged for anti-Castro activists to get seats close enough to the Cuban dugout to cause problems. And they're greasing the way for Cuban players to defect, setting up a little receiving room right beneath the stands.

"For 40 years the State Department has said no to Fidel Castro's Cuba," Scott Armstrong, the Washington author and journalist who arranged the games, told Salon News. "Now it is finding it very difficult to say yes, even over something as straightforward and mundane as a baseball game."

The Orioles, who have the worst record in the majors despite having its second-highest payroll ($83 million), slipped by the Cubans, 3-2, in 11 innings in an exhibition game on March 28. It was the first major league game played on the island, 90 miles off Key West, since 1958, just before Fidel Castro's revolutionaries marched into Havana and took power. Relations have remained frozen since then, through abortive CIA invasions, clumsy attempts to assassinate the Cuban leader and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Cuba's patron, a decade ago.

This year's games, gingerly supported by the White House, were supposed to help break the ice between Washington and one of the world's last communist dictatorships. But apparently the first contest went a little too smoothly for some U.S. diplomats, who just can't kick the old habits.

The State Department initially denied a visa to the top Cuban officials invited to attend the game, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon and Olympic Committee Chairman Jose Ramon Fernandez Alarcon. Apparently the diplomats turned red-faced over a statement Ricardo Alarcon made in Havana last month to the effect that the games were being played "as if there were no embargo."

With the intervention of Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., a close Clinton ally, Foggy Bottom mossbacks relented on letting in Olympics official Fernandez Alarcon, considered by hemisphere leaders as the only liberal in the Havana hierarchy and a likely successor to Castro. But they took the ticket out of the hand of Ricardo Alarcon.

Top U.S. officials were denied tickets, too. In an extraordinary and possibly unprecedented reading of the government ethics act this week, the State Department ruled that a government official would be considered corrupt if he accepted a free ticket (valued at $30) from the Orioles, 300 of which had been set aside for Washington bigwigs.

The diplomats then snatched tickets out of the hands of the Cuban team, its relatives, friends and supporters from its non-embassy embassy in Washington. Only a week ago the Cubans were specifically promised about 1,000 seats along the third base line, the same number the Cubans gave to the U.S. side in Havana. The allocation has now been slashed to 300, spread out along two thin rows. The 700 seats suddenly made available behind them will most likely be snapped up by rabidly anti-Castro Cubans, raising the prospect of fistfights, or worse.

A pregame reception the Cubans planned for their American debut, meanwhile, has been put on ice by the Orioles, no doubt after a poke in the ribs from Washington. The Americans were allowed a show-off party in Havana in March.

But the State Department is doing some pregame planning of its own, asking the Baltimore police to help "facilitate" defections by Cuban players by setting up a special room for them under the Camden Yards grandstand, which sits on an old railroad yard. Several Cubans have already been enticed to the United States to play baseball, most notably the Hernandez brothers, the New York Yankees' "El Duque" and the Florida Marlins' Livan.

More worrisome, however, is the promise of a propaganda flyover by Brothers to the Rescue, which pioneered the tactic of penetrating Cuban airspace until Havana's pilots began shooting back. The Clinton administration, so worried about terrorism, abstained
from forbidding the flights until late Friday.

All of which adds up to the prospect of an exciting game. That is, if your taste runs to nationalist flag waving, riots in the stands, constant disruption by stunt pilots and the sour taste of sports mixed with Cold War politics.

It's the national pastime! Play ball!

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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