A passion for Cuba and the sport

Baseball: Scott Armstrong, a Washington insider and Cuba admirer, can't help but be torn by split loyalties to the Orioles and to the island nation

Cubans At Camden Yards

May 04, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

With the game just one pitch old, Scott Armstrong suddenly realized the night's dilemma: He didn't know whom to root for.

A raging Orioles fan and a raging Cuba supporter, Armstrong -- a garrulous former journalist and consummate Washington insider who was a driving force behind the Orioles-Cuba exhibition series -- was, for a rare nanosecond, speechless. Armstrong chose to sit with Cuban fans three rows back from the visitors dugout, showing his loyalty to a people whose customs and way of life he has admired for decades. But at the first great Orioles play, he jumped in his seat.

"All riiight!" he screamed, and then realized the pro-Baltimore blunder as a gaggle of Cuban children high on baseball and candy turned to stare. "I can't help it. I can't help myself. What a throw!" A second later, with equal exuberance, he stood with the Cuban fans for Cuban slugger Orestes Kindelan, clapping heartily in his Cuba baseball cap.

Last night's game was the culmination of a three-year obsession for Armstrong. And even with a rain delay, talk of possible defections and Cuba protesters storming the field, his bubble could not be burst. "It was expected," he said, shrugging, shortly after a protester was tackled on the field in the fifth inning. "It's difficult, but the Cubans knew this could happen."

Armstrong has long loved baseball and Cuba. As a kid, Armstrong went to only two baseball games; his father was too poor for more. As an adult, Armstrong worked as a Washington Post reporter and then created an archive of national security documents -- along the way collecting sources, schmoozing with people in power and, when he could, pushing for a U.S.-Cuba baseball series from State Department meetings to Beltway dinner parties.

To be sure, credit for the games goes to the Orioles, but Armstrong, 53, was an ever-present gadfly on the topic, sometimes helping the effort, sometimes just annoying Orioles officials -- but never quiet on the subject.

Wearing a wide smile and a Cuban flag handkerchief in the pocket of his blue suit, Armstrong -- a man with a big laugh and a burly bear hug -- was as delighted as the Cuban fan banging the bongos farther down his row. His allegiance, he said, was less for any team than for the brotherly ideals this game was supposed to foster.

"We finally shook hands on something," Armstrong said, a black briefcase at his feet hiding some celebratory rum. "We had that handshake, and now we can pull that handshake tighter. And that's something."

Armstrong is not bashful about his liberal politics or his support for Cuba even amid the protests of Cuban-Americans, many of whom railed against the human-rights abuses of Fidel Castro's government from outside the stadium.

Instead, Armstrong scoffed at the idea of defections.

"People say, `Oh, once the Cubans get here, they'll defect,' but I say that's nonsense," Armstrong said. "There were some old Cuban ballplayers here today who once played in the Negro league here. These guys defected the other way -- they went back to Cuba to be happy. They wanted an egalitarian society. These players were saying, `Boy, are we glad we didn't come back.' "

This was not the sentiment of many people in the ballpark last night. The spectacle of jumbo hot dogs, giant ticket sales and monster salaries would seem all too alluring for many Cubans. Armstrong might not agree, but even some pro-government Cubans were quietly acknowledging the siren call of American glitz.

"Some will look around and feel that financial pull," said Erick Capote, 25, the son of a Cuban government official, who joined the private reception where Cuban government ministers gathered with Major League Baseball bigwigs. "It's only natural to be attracted to such wealth."

The pull was indeed strong. Cuban children who came to Baltimore to play baseball with young Americans spotted the Sheraton hotel gift shop from a second-floor balcony yesterday morning and sprinted down two escalators to get to it. They ogled the Kermit the Frog dolls, descended on a case holding laminated baseball cards and fingered the Teletubbie key chains with rapt attention. No child bought a thing, but their fascination was palpable.

By the time those kids reached the stadium, their excitement had reached full throttle -- and they weren't alone. Their chaperones were thrilled, too.

But among high-ranking members of the Cuban delegation, some refused to read hopeful signs into the game. Frustrated by tussles over their visas, their tickets and their two-hour delay Sunday night at the airport, some were in less than optimistic moods.

"This game will be good for baseball, but politics? It won't make a difference at all," said Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, a former Cuban foreign affairs minister who remains in the government.

As for Armstrong, the evening would not be dampened by Cuban skepticism, American politics or even by the soaking bag of peanuts picked up in the rain delay.

"There was 40 years of rain in Cuba," Armstrong said, sounding a bit poetic.

"Now, finally, a ray of sunshine."

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