Angelos sees game, Cubans' passion

Color, fans' enthusiasm impress O's owner, but series obstacles remain

January 18, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

HAVANA -- Orioles owner Peter Angelos took in a ballgame yesterday. He sat in the stands at Cuba's Latin American Stadium with the rest of his 14-member goodwill delegation and enjoyed the National Series game between the popular Havana Industriales and a visiting team from Villa Clara.

The next time, he hopes, one of the competing teams will be his own.

"It was very colorful and the fans were very enthusiastic," said Angelos. "Clearly, baseball is the national game of Cuba and it is something that the Cuban people love very much."

The arrival of the American contingent at one of Cuba's most popular sports facilities brought the negotiations for a proposed humanitarian exhibition series into the public eye for the first time here, but the outcome of the four-day negotiating mission still is very much in question.

Angelos remains optimistic that the negotiating team -- which includes representatives of Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, as well as Washington-based consultant Scott Armstrong and a few other advisers -- will be able to overcome several political and logistical obstacles and return to Baltimore with a concrete plan for the proposed home-and-home exhibition games with a team of Cuban all-stars.

The negotiations, which have been cloaked in a media blackout since the delegation arrived in Havana on Friday night, are expected to culminate with an announcement either late today or early tomorrow, but the two bargaining teams still must navigate a maze of complex and sensitive issues.

The Cuban sports authorities have made it clear that they want the games to take place, and have provided a very friendly atmosphere for the negotiations. But the Cuban government also has made it known -- particularly through the state-run press -- that it is not pleased with the way the U.S. State Department recently used the possibility of the baseball exchange to highlight the announcement of a modified policy toward contact with the Cuban people.

The State Department originally denied the Orioles permission to visit Cuba when Angelos first attempted to organize a goodwill trip in 1996, but included a conditional license for the trip when the Clinton administration announced the policy shift two weeks ago. It agreed to the possible series as long as funds raised went to charity -- and not to the Castro regime.

Though there appears to be widespread support for the visit in the Cuban sports community, there also appears to be a reluctance on the part of the Cuban officials to allow the U.S. State Department to dictate the conditions for the visit.

The largest hurdle may be the distribution of the revenues, which Angelos originally intended to go to impoverished Cubans through the Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Church's unsanctioned Cuban charitable arm known as Caritas. The Cuban officials reportedly would like to see a significant percentage of the money directed toward hurricane relief efforts in Central America.

"This would be a good thing to happen even if there is no money," said Tom Garofalo, who traveled to Cuba with the Orioles delegation to represent Catholic Relief Services. "The mission of CRS is to assist Caritas in helping the poorest and most vulnerable members of the Cuban population, but our goal also is to follow up on what the holy father called for -- an openness. Baseball is a great medium for that."

Pope John Paul II made that call during his visit to Cuba, asking "for the world to be open to Cuba and for Cuba to be open to the world."

Though the papal visit led to a more open role for the Catholic Church in Cuba, Cuban authorities remain sensitive to anything that might increase the influence of the church in Cuban society.

"I assume they'll be able to work out something that can do both things -- help the poor in Cuba and also help elsewhere in Latin America," Garofalo said. "CRS is just happy to be working for the Orioles and grateful that Peter Angelos and the Angelos family wanted to involve us in this."

The nuts-and-bolts negotiations also hinge on the adequacy and security of the Cuban facilities, which will be discussed in greater detail today. The delegation is scheduled to tour the park when it is empty today to ascertain what needs to be done to make it meet the requirements of Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Orioles left fielder B. J. Surhoff, who got his first look at Latin American Stadium during the Industriales' 3-0 victory over Villa Clara yesterday, will play an important role in evaluating the stadium, since he and former major-leaguer Tony Bernazard will be reporting back to union chief Donald Fehr before the union gives its final blessing to the exhibition series.

"Tomorrow, all of us will review the facilities," Angelos said. "They look very adequate to me, but I'll leave that up to the professionals."

Of course, the Cuban officials also have security concerns, since they have had star players defect each of the last two times that the Cuban National Team has made a visit to the United States.

The Cubans likely will want assurances that players will not be encouraged to jump the team while it is in Baltimore, but that is something that neither the Orioles nor the State Department can guarantee.

Pub Date: 1/18/99

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