Angelos may go to Cuba first

Preliminary trip planned to pave way for games with Orioles

January 07, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Orioles owner Peter Angelos hopes to lead a baseball delegation to Cuba, perhaps as early as next week, to advance his three-year quest for a home-and-home exhibition series between the Orioles and a team of top Cuban players.

The planning for the proposed goodwill mission still is in the preliminary stages, but some of the groundwork for the venture was laid during an earlier attempt to organize an exhibition trip. The Orioles were denied permission to visit Cuba by the State Department two years ago, but this week's decision by the Clinton administration to lower some economic barriers between the United States and the island nation included the go-ahead for the charity series.

"This is something that Bud [Selig, commissioner] and I have been talking about for years," Angelos said yesterday. "Now that it has been made part of a policy announcement by the president, we need to sit down and talk to all the parties concerned. If everybody is satisfied, we can go forward."

So far, the public reaction has been largely positive, though the overture is certain to prompt protests from some segments of the Cuban-American population. Angelos said that he is moving forward because he feels that the time is right to reach out to the Cuban people -- and because a love of baseball is one of the many things that Cubans and Americans have in common.

"I read somewhere that I wanted to do this because I was interested in their ballplayers," Angelos said. "I don't remember ever being motivated by that objective. I don't re member exactly when was the first time I thought about this, but it was at the time when it was becoming apparent that the Soviet Union no longer was a threat to the Western Hemisphere. It seemed to me that it made sense to have better relations [with Cuba].

"This is just an interested citizen. Why can't we do something together to improve the relations between our people? We have so much in common."

The issue remained on hold until the State Department's surprising announcement, which suddenly turned the Orioles into one of the standard-bearers for Major League Baseball's growing emphasis on international outreach.

"It was a surprise that the State Department picked it up and ran with it," Angelos said. "The Secretary of State [Madeleine K. Albright] got directly involved. The reaction has been very positive."

There still are some hurdles. The Orioles have gotten preliminary approval from Selig to organize the exhibitions, but the plan still must be approved by Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association.

More importantly, it must be approved by the Cuban government and the Cuban sports ministry. Angelos and his son Louis are expected to head the delegation that will travel to Cuba to work out the details.

The traveling party also is expected to include Orioles counsel Russell Smouse, consultant Scott Armstrong and representatives of Major League Baseball. The trip has not yet been scheduled, but Angelos said that he hopes to depart sometime in the next two weeks.

Organizing the games will be a huge undertaking on relatively short notice. The Orioles hope to play in Cuba during spring training and face the Cuban team later at Camden Yards, but there is more to it than just flying in and taking the field.

The Orioles and Major League Baseball have to negotiate United States and international broadcast rights and determine how the proceeds from the broadcast and gate revenues will be distributed. The money has been earmarked for charities that help impoverished Cubans, but it remains a complicated process that also must have the blessing of the Cuban authorities.

The game wouldn't technically be against the Cuban National Team, because the 1999 version of that team will not be assembled until later in the spring. The Orioles would play what amounts to a Cuban amateur all-star team, drawn from the teams that compete in Cuba's national league.

Orioles officials acknowledge that the short time frame makes the organizational effort a tremendous challenge, but Angelos has waited a long time for this opportunity and indicated yesterday that he is committed to seeing the exhibition series become a reality.

Pub Date: 1/07/99

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