Cuba issue goes way beyond baseball - just ask Palmeiro

April 04, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

The next time Peter Angelos decides, "Gee, wouldn't it be nice to play in Cuba?" perhaps he should ask his only Cuban-born player if he thinks it's a good idea.

Rafael Palmeiro was rather clear on the subject yesterday before learning that the U.S. Treasury Department had again denied the Orioles permission to visit his native land.

"If we go, I ain't going," the first baseman said.

Palmeiro's family left Cuba to escape the communist regime of Fidel Castro. The United States put the Caribbean nation under a trade embargo more than 30 years ago.

And yet, this is where Angelos wanted to play ball.

He spoke Wednesday about bringing the Cuban and American people together, calling it a "great idea" for the Orioles to play exhibitions in Cuba and a Cuban team to play exhibitions in Baltimore.

But last night, he revealed another motive.

"We have influence in Venezuela and Aruba," Angelos told The Sun's Peter Schmuck. "Cuba seemed to us a logical place to establish a beachhead and recruit players for the Orioles.

"That was our intention, certainly not a diplomatic mission."

And you thought the Orioles' hidden agenda was to cut a deal with a Cuban real-estate agent and make Havana their permanent spring home.

They're 0-for-Florida, aren't they?

Actually, the owner's plan has its logic -- every major-league team would love to get into Cuba and sign some of the world's top amateur players.

The pipeline won't open until the embargo is lifted, and the Orioles, behind other clubs in Latin America, could use the edge.

But talk about a narrow world view. The issue is larger than baseball, and Angelos should have known it.

"We left there 25 years ago because of what Castro stands for," Palmeiro said. "We didn't believe in it. I don't see how I can go back. There's no way."

Palmeiro is one of six Cuban natives in the majors, along with the New York Mets' Rey Ordonez, San Francisco's Osvaldo Fernandez, St. Louis' Tony Fossas and Oakland's Jose Canseco and Ariel Prieto.

Ordonez, Fernandez and Prieto are defectors from the Cuban national team. Asked last night if it was a good idea for the Orioles to play in Cuba, Ordonez said, "No, it's too dangerous."

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican and Cuban American, said much the same thing in a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

She wrote that an appearance by the Orioles in Cuba would "grant the regime the legitimacy it does not deserve and would only serve to exploit the Cuban baseball players."

Palmeiro's family lives in Miami, where the large Cuban American population favors a hard line on Cuba, believing it will help topple Castro.

Like most Cuban immigrants, he still has relatives living in the island nation 90 miles off the Florida coast -- some he has never met.

Cuba is a tense, emotional and divisive topic in South Florida. And Palmeiro got an earful Wednesday when he spoke with his father.

"My dad was very, very disturbed by it," Palmeiro said.

Of course he was.

If Palmeiro played for the Orioles in Cuba, he would become persona non grata in Miami, along with his parents and three brothers.

"I know Peter has his reasons why he wants to take our team down there," Palmeiro said. "But how can I go play baseball in a country I left because of the government?

"I can't do that. It goes against what I stand for. If I were American, it would be different. But I was born in Cuba."

Whatever, the issue is again dead, thanks to the Treasury Department.

"Good," Palmeiro said after last night's game. "I don't have to worry about it anymore."

The Orioles' request -- their second in two years -- was first reported Wednesday by the Washington Times.

The bureaucrats didn't waste any time, did they?

For once Angelos should just take a hint, and drop it.

He's risking embarrassment to the organization.

He drew criticism for saying Roberto Alomar would be paid during his five-game suspension.

He drew criticism for saying umpire John Hirschbeck should apologize for provoking the Alomar spitting incident.

And now he'll draw criticism for wanting to do business with a government that the U.S. wants overthrown.

The crazy thing is, there is no bigger patriot than Angelos. And it can be argued that the Cuba embargo is a failed policy -- Castro is still in power.

Still, it's impossible to justify Angelos' actions.

He wears enough hats.

Now he's the liberator of Cuba?

To think, Palmeiro was one of Angelos' first major free-agent signings. He has been a terrific player and citizen. He should warrant special consideration.

Instead, Angelos was ready to take the Orioles to a country that Palmeiro escaped when he was 7, a country to which he will not return.

No explanation is good enough.

Pub Date: 4/04/97

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