Embracing Castro is an affront to freedom

April 04, 1999|By JOHN STEADMAN

It wasn't an easy objective: to somehow penetrate Cuba and find a way to observe the potential of its baseball colony. But then the game plan changed. Such an obvious objective wasn't going to work. The change-of-pace onus was to make it a humanitarian mission, people-to-people, reaching out as a gesture of friendship, an attempt to ease political pressures and make it more personal.

Ah, for the love of baseball. Our torn and tormented world needs much more of this. Baseball was the catalyst and Peter Angelos, majority owner of the Orioles, fulfilled the role of point man. He made it happen.

Will he be looked upon as some kind of a messiah now that he has taken a big-league team to Cuba, the first in 40 years, and surveyed the marketplace -- much the way Branch Rickey stamped himself the patriarch of black baseball after he signed Jackie Robinson in 1946? Will the Orioles become every Cuban's favorite baseball team because Angelos demonstrated such unusual interest?

There's adequate baseball played in Cuba; it has always been that way but with an overload of Punch-and-Judy hitters. Such a condition is not going to change.

The fact that the Orioles got to Cuba, with balls and bat, something the CIA couldn't sponsor with rifles and mortar, may give them a recruiting advantage, yet the point is questionable.

Much depends on the ability of scouts to determine the ability of the Cuban players and to appropriately measure their skills. Will the island ever be "open sesame" for signing players, or will the Castro regime take a dim view of such capitalistic goings on? Angelos might think of something; he always does.

If Castro made the island's baseball players free agents, with access to American teams, it would unravel the Communist concept -- maybe placing it in total disarray. Is he about to do that? Among the uninitiated, those with short memories or no memories, Castro gained public relations points from the general media. Totally orchestrated. A headline in the New York Times even said he was the "perfect host."

Unfortunately, our thoughts can't turn away from the pain and anguish this Castro animal has caused. Families, friends and hard-earned fortunes were obliterated under his dictates. He caused freedom-loving men, women and children to be driven from their homes and endure hardship that few Americans will ever understand.

Let's relate the experiences of two friends, both athletes. Willie Miranda, beloved in Baltimore as a shortstop with the Orioles in the late 1950s, had to stow away on a Pan American plane to escape Havana and then, years later, in disguise, went back to get family members off the island.

Returning home, the boat took on water and the U.S. Coast Guard had to save the Mirandas from the ravages of the ocean. Did Castro care? Did Hitler or Mussolini care?

The despot Castro took Cuba down the tubes. He destroyed the serenity of the island, the peace among its people. We were among Miranda's closest friends, which is why his family asked a sportswriter to deliver the eulogy at his funeral at St. Anthony of Padua Church.

Miranda discussed almost incessantly the troubled times in Cuba. On one occasion, never to be forgotten, he said, "As we talk now, if Castro came in this room and if I had a gun, I would shoot him and go right back talking to you as if nothing happened." Miranda had paid a severe price in personal emotion.

Now to another friend, Joe Prado, voted the best athlete in the class of 1946 at Mount St. Joseph. Jose, now American Joe, was sent here from Havana by his family to be educated. His father immigrated to Cuba from Spain. "He worked, worked, worked," said Prado. "He saved penny by penny and probably had a half-million dollars. Castro took it all."

Men and women, desperate, left professional careers in Cuba and came to Florida to mop floors and wash windows. They were lucky to save their lives.

Prado, now 71, had to spend nine years in Cuban prisons before getting to the United States via Guatemala. "I could only try to conspire against the system," he told us on a visit to Baltimore. "I fought every way possible. I never spent two days in the same place.

"I was on the run, fighting and hiding out. Then back on the run again. I was up in the hills, Jan. 21, 1961, living off anything we could find to eat, when our group was surrounded by Castro's soldiers and I was taken prisoner."

He was imprisoned on the Isle of Pines and then taken to a dungeon in Havana. "I was in prison three years before they had a hearing. We went to an auditorium, 804 of us. Then they picked out 21 and shot them."

As to treatment, he mentions, "The guards tortured us with bad beatings. It was living hell. At a time like that you evaluate yourself. You learn the honest realities of life."

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