The man behind O's game in Cuba

`Operator': A cultivator of powerful Washington connections is the driving force behind the two Orioles games with a Cuban all-star team.

March 26, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- More than a decade ago, Scott Armstrong started a crusade that has led to Sunday's Orioles game in Havana -- a campaign that says as much about his will to make impossible things happen as about his unabashed eagerness to embrace Cuba.

The burly behind-the-scenes promoter of the Cuba game -- and a return match in Baltimore -- does not care if his politics insults enemies of Fidel Castro's regime: He has wanted this ball-field diplomacy for too long.

When Baltimore Orioles principal owner Peter G. Angelos finally began pushing for a game against the Cubans, Armstrong was right behind him, playing the negotiator, the lobbyist, the ramrod.

A former journalist whose eclectic interests are evident in the reams of newspapers and declassified documents that seem to have exploded in the rooms of his Washington home,

Armstrong is used to adopting controversial stances. The Cuba game is one.

Armstrong does not apologize for his receptive approach to the Cuban government, or his desire to see the U.S. government take a cue from these games to bring Cuba back in the fold.

He describes Castro as "a naughty boy who has matured into a critic of U.S. policy." And he mocks restrictive U.S. trade policies -- like the ones controlling the import of baseball bats to Cuba for Sunday's game.

"Those bats might be used to invade Florida," Armstrong joked. More than anything, though, he seems to respond to the Cuban people.

"They are an educated, open, warm people who have the same aspirations Americans do," Armstrong said, after biting the cherry off his Mai Tai in a Chinese restaurant. "They have taken one of the worst hellholes on earth and turned it into a reasonable place -- there's less poverty there than there is in most of L.A. Nobody's starving to death."

Angelos calls Armstrong an "idealist." Both men share a distaste for the lack of freedom in Cuba, but say they are nevertheless eager to re-establish ties with Havana.

Critics condemn Armstrong's advocacy for this game, calling him an apologist for Castro. Armstrong's connections with Cuban diplomats and other government officials have undermined U.S. policies that are meant to curb human-rights violations in the communist country, they say.

"Scott Armstrong is a charter member of the Castro lobby," said Jose Cardenas, Washington director of the Cuban-American Foundation, an anti-Castro group. "He has dedicated himself to undermining at every possible turn a hard U.S. line toward the Castro regime."

Armstrong's association with hotly contested causes is nothing new. When he arrived in Washington in 1973 for a job on the Senate Watergate committee, sporting long hair and bushy sideburns, one might have predicted he would not shy from a fight.

The way Armstrong sees it, he is battling Washington's refusal to give up its Cold War policy on Cuba. Still, he seems just as interested in solving difficult puzzles -- bringing Cuba together with the major leagues -- as he does in making any political statement about Cuba.

"We're the proverbial quadriplegic wallpaper hanger," he says of himself and others who have worked to make the game happen.

Busy but without job

Armstrong is a larger-than-life insider -- a man who seems to know everybody by coincidence, a person who is always busy but doesn't actually have a job.

Armstrong, 53, who as a reporter became a legend at the Washington Post for conducting a 16-hour interview, now seems to be in the business of understanding how Washington works once the reporters leave the room.

Armstrong, who will be paid by the Orioles for his services, made Sunday's game a personal mission from the start. The effort required hundreds of hours of talks, engaging all manner of powerful characters -- Angelos and his two business-associate sons, top State Department officials and Cuban diplomats.

"Some people dropped down dead," Armstrong said of reluctant officials with whom he has negotiated. "And some people dropped down alive." And the ones left standing helped arrange the game in Havana with a rematch in Baltimore on May 3.

"He's a doer," said his friend Seymour Hersh, the journalist and author. "He likes action and he likes to be in the middle of things." Warmly, he added, "He's sort of an operator."

Armstrong still seems like a reporter straight out of central casting -- with his cussing, opinionated outbursts, and utter lack of fussiness. "Want some Hunan fish?" he barks as he studies the menu over lunch. "It's messy. Let's get it."

An adopted son of middle class parents in Wheaton, Ill., Armstrong seemed to have had connections from the start. In high school, he helped run a student-council campaign for his classmate Bob Woodward. Woodward lost the campaign, but remained a friend and colleague, and the two later co-wrote "The Brethren," a 1979 best-seller about the Supreme Court.

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