Castro presence puts politics at forefront

Cuban leader watches game with Angelos, Schmoke and Selig

March 29, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

HAVANA -- So much for subtle political overtones.

The Orioles had hoped to cast yesterday's historic exhibition game against members of the Cuban national team as a nonpolitical, people-to-people event, but the high-profile presence of Cuban President Fidel Castro at Latin American Stadium nearly overshadowed the baseball dimension of the goodwill trip.

The Orioles worked overtime to score an 11-inning, 3-2 victory before a crowd of more than 50,000, but some of the most interesting action -- or interaction -- took place about 50 feet behind home plate, where Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke sat with Castro throughout the four-hour game.

No doubt, the image of baseball's top-ranking official, a high-profile owner and a nationally known mayor schmoozing with Castro will cause tremendous consternation in the Cuban exile community. It could even spark a new round of protests at the Orioles' Fort Lauderdale, Fla., spring-training facility.

But Angelos said he knew going in that there was a public relations risk inherent in the controversial Cuban overture and refused to apologize for sitting down with a man who has been a bitter enemy of the United States for nearly four decades.

"He's the principal political person in his government," Angelos said. "If he invites you to sit with him at the ballgame, good manners would dictate that you accept."

Selig seemed more concerned that the visit might be viewed by critics as an accommodation of Cuba's repressive government, but defended the visit -- and the close contact with Castro -- as part of a new initiative by the U.S. State Department to encourage more contact between the Cuban and American people.

"I'm extremely sensitive about that," Selig said. "But this is part of a sports and cultural exchange that our State Department wanted us to do. Baseball holds a unique position in both countries. It was logical that it be the linchpin of that exchange."

Angelos and Selig met Castro for the first time the night before, when they were invited along with American League President Gene Budig and National League President Len Coleman and a select group of officials to a state dinner at the Palacio de la Revolucion.

The Orioles were invited along with the Cuban team to another reception with Castro at the presidential palace before they boarded a charter flight back to Florida late last night.

Castro stayed for the entire game, which featured a late-inning comeback by the apparently outmanned Cuban team before Orioles designated hitter Harold Baines won the game with an RBI single in the 11th inning.

"I think he was a little disappointed because it looked in the late innings like they would prevail," Angelos said.

Angelos declared the game an unqualified success, from the pre-game flag ceremony that involved every member of each team to the warm interaction between the opposing players after the tense game.

"It met and exceeded my expectations," Angelos said. "It was a perfect game, because we won and the Cuban team showed that they are capable of competing with a major-league team. The highlight of the entire event for me was the way the Orioles and the Cuban ballplayers shook hands after the game."

The conversation with Castro was memorable, too, even though it did not stray far from the sport that had brought the Orioles owner to Cuba for the second time in three months.

"We talked only about baseball," Angelos said. "He was asking questions with respect to salaries and how the game operates. He knows about some of the stars of the game. It was a very interesting experience, and I think everything about it was positive.

"It was one great day in the effort to bring the Cuban and American people together. It's one small step, but I think other teams will follow. I think what the Orioles have begun will go on and on. We've got some very substantial political problems to be resolved, but we are working together to do some positive things."

Pub Date: 3/29/99

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