Schmoke suggests exhibition in Cuba Mayor's plan for Orioles assailed by nationalists

March 20, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Jugar pelota?

The Orioles would hear umpires yell "play ball" in Spanish under an idea suggested yesterday by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to take the team to Havana, Cuba, for an exhibition game.

Schmoke returned Sunday from a diplomatic trip to the Communist country and offered the game as a goodwill mission.

But Cuban nationalists in Miami, who oppose interaction with their former homeland under dictator Fidel Castro, called Schmoke's idea "pathetic." Their resentment was intensified yesterday as Miami rescuers searched rough seas for four Cuban baseball players and their coach, who have been missing more than a week after trying to defect to the United States on a raft.

The players were suspended last July because Cuban officials feared they would defect to play ball in the United States.

"Is the mayor aware that in Cuba the players were suspended because they talked about playing in the major leagues?" said Ninoska Perez, a spokeswoman for the Cuban-American National Foundation in Miami. "I think the idea is pathetic."

Schmoke, however, said he attended a game last week in Havana and sees an international contest as a good way for Americans to interact with Cubans without the usual political tensions.

"I'm talking about people to people," Schmoke said. "Johns Hopkins sent their baseball team, and it was very well-received."

A similar proposal made last year by Orioles owner Peter Angelos was rejected by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The administration cited the 30-year U.S. trade embargo with Cuba in denying the trip. Treasury spokeswoman Beth Weaver yesterday dimmed any hope that a game would happen soon, saying the department's position hasn't changed.

Angelos couldn't be reached to comment on the mayor's suggestion. Last year, Angelos offered the idea, hoping to give the Orioles an edge in recruiting Cuban players for when the ban may be lifted. Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, whose family defected from Cuba when he was 7, opposed the idea, saying he wouldn't go in protest of the Castro regime.

During the past few years, an increasing number of Americans and moderate Cuban nationals have advocated lifting the embargo to create dialogue with Cuba. President Clinton is expected to announce today an easing of U.S. policy toward Cuba, including allowing direct flights to the communist-ruled island. Clinton, however, isn't expected to back off on the embargo.

Silvia Wilhelm, a spokeswoman for the Cuban Committee for Democracy Inc., a moderate Cuban national group based in Washington, called Schmoke's plan a good idea.

"We are for any type of interaction," Wilhelm said. "It's the best way to get rid of these 38 years of animosity."

Schmoke traveled to Havana for four days last week as a guest of the Center for International Policy. The Washington-based advocacy group is pushing to end the U.S. embargo.

Pub Date: 3/20/98

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