Politics part of game

Baseball: A simple, well-intentioned idea for an Orioles game in Cuba cannot avoid cultural, economic -- and political -- divides.

January 24, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

HAVANA -- During a visit to Cuba's Latin American Stadium last weekend, members of the baseball delegation from Baltimore thought it would be a gesture of goodwill to distribute Orioles caps to some of the children watching the ballgame between Havana's Industriales and a visiting team from Villa Clara.

The Orioles, after all, were proposing to visit the stadium in March, and the rumors of a game between a major-league team and a team of Cuban all-stars had generated substantial excitement in the capital of this baseball-crazed island nation.

The cap giveaway seemed like a good idea at the time, but it quickly created a small mob scene, as adults and children alike converged on the delegation in the hope of acquiring one of the prized souvenirs.

The incident did not cause a major security problem or prompt any bad feelings, but it served as a timely metaphor for the complex task that Orioles owner Peter Angelos undertook when he decided to pursue the goodwill baseball mission to Cuba.

To the Americans, the caps were just caps. The average American kid has a closet full of them. In Cuba, where the best seat at Latin American Stadium costs the equivalent of 10 cents (U.S.), a new American baseball cap is a small treasure that might be worn proudly as a symbol of Cuba's unconditional love of the sport or bartered at a public market for something of more practical value.

A top-quality Orioles cap, the kind that is sized rather than adjustable, can cost as much as $25 in Baltimore, an amount that would take the average Cuban worker more than a month to earn.

The four-day visit by the U.S. baseball contingent provided a series of similar revelations, each of them illustrating the wide economic, cultural and political gulf that separates the United States and Cuba and complicates the well-intentioned effort to schedule the proposed home-and-home exhibition series.

Though significant progress was reported by both sides during the complex negotiations, there was no way that the two delegations could cut through four decades of political distrust with four days of friendly baseball-related conversation.

Every issue took on both a pragmatic and political dimension. Even the makeup of the U.S. traveling party, which -- to the dismay of Cuban officials -- included a representative of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS), created the potential for misunderstanding.

The delegation returned to Baltimore on Tuesday without a firm agreement to schedule the two games, but Angelos pledged to continue working with the Cuban officials to overcome the final obstacles that stand in the way of the goodwill mission.

The odds appear to be stacked against him, but the Orioles owner has defied them before and insists that he will find a way to make the exhibition series a reality.

Still, the only thing certain is this: In the complex arena of Cuban-American relations, a hat is never just a hat.

Goodwill hunting

The Orioles already had made some humanitarian inroads in Cuba before the visit. The Oriole Advocates, a non-profit organization affiliated with the team, sent a large shipment of new and used baseball equipment for distribution to Cuban youngsters last summer -- a gesture that did not go unacknowledged by the Cuban delegation.

Soon after the Orioles contingent touched down at Jose Marti International Airport last week, national baseball commissioner Carlos Rodriguez pointed out an interesting coincidence. While the negotiations for the exhibition series were getting under way in Havana, the national championship tournament for the 9- and 10-year-old division of Cuba's youth baseball program was about to begin in Villa Clara.

Most of the equipment used in that tournament -- which ended the day after the Orioles returned to Baltimore -- was from the shipment sent by the Oriole Advocates as part of their "Cardboard to Leather" Latin American outreach program and distributed jointly by Catholic Relief Services and the Cuban Sports ministry.

The U.S. trade embargo makes it difficult to import new equipment at a reasonable price even for the upper-level teams -- so the Cuban sports officials clearly were happy to make a connection with the Orioles, even as high-ranking government officials publicly questioned the intentions of the U.S. State Department and criticized the U.S. delegation for trying to dictate the terms of the proposed goodwill series.

The Orioles could not entirely escape that perception, because the games could not be scheduled without the approval of Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association. Union official Tony Bernazard, Orioles outfielder B. J. Surhoff and MLB executive vice president Sandy Alderson inspected the ballpark on Monday and made a long list of safety-related improvements that must be made before the Orioles will be allowed to play in Havana.

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