Signing of Baez offers lesson in history of O's foreign policy

The Kickoff

February 19, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.-- --The embargo has been over for seven years, so long that Cuban pitcher Danys Baez said yesterday that he wasn't even aware of it.

We're not talking about the economic embargo that the United States has enforced against Cuba for nearly a half-century. Baez certainly remembers that. We're talking about the embargo the Orioles imposed on Cuban defectors after the team made its historic trip to Havana to play a team of Cuban all-stars in 1999.

Owner Peter Angelos openly discouraged any attempt by his front office to pursue the players who jumped off the Cuban national team during international competition or rode a raft across the dangerous Florida straits. He said at the time he didn't want to encourage anyone to take such a risk, and he clearly wanted to sustain the rapport his team had built with the Cuban government during the home-and-home goodwill series.

When that controversial stance became public, there was an outcry from both the Cuban expatriate community and the sports agents who were scrambling to represent the increasing flow of solid baseball talent streaming into the major leagues from the tiny island nation. The Orioles quickly distanced themselves from the policy and it was largely forgotten, but Baez is the first Cuban defector to put on an Orioles uniform.

"I didn't even know about that," said Baez, who signed with the Cleveland Indians after defecting at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1999. "At that time, my agent handled everything. It was about the baseball first. The politics were second."

Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan recalled the Orioles were cast in a complicated situation as the first major league team in four decades to play in Cuba, but he said the circumstances of Baez's arrival in the United States were not an issue when the possibility of signing him was discussed with Angelos early in the offseason.

"It never came up," Flanagan said.

What Baez does remember quite clearly was the excitement generated in Cuba by the prospect of two games against a major league team, though he was a rookie in the Cuban league and was not a candidate to play on the specially selected Cuban all-star team that included Jose Contreras and Omar Linares.

The Cubans took the Orioles into extra innings before losing at Latin American Stadium, then traveled to Baltimore a month later to score a stunning 12-6 victory at Camden Yards.

"That was a big deal ... a Cuban national team against a major league team," Baez said. "That gave the Cuban team a lot of confidence to go out and play a lot better in tournaments. They had always faced teams of college players. It was the first time against professionals, and the Cuban people had been waiting for a chance to see that for a long time. They were just happy to see that could happen."

The Orioles faced protesters in South Florida as they prepared for the game in Havana. Angelos also had to deal with the suspicion that he was trying to gain some advantage over other major league teams in the event that the economic embargo was lifted or Cuban dictator Fidel Castro ever decided to allow Cuban players to turn professional.

In retrospect, it's pretty clear Angelos was more interested in the historic nature of the trip, which was cast at the time as a "people-to-people" exchange. Obviously, no advantage was gained, because the Orioles have never been the first North American stop for a Cuban defector.

This is the fifth major league club for Baez, who won 10 games for the Indians in his first full season (2002) before evolving into a solid closer who averaged 32 saves a season from 2003 to 2005. He worked largely in middle relief last year, but still commanded a three-year deal worth $19 million.

Funny how things work out. He wasn't involved in the historic series against the Orioles, but the burst of nationalistic pride that followed the victory in Baltimore might have helped to create his opportunity to defect. Cuba expanded the pitching staff of the national team that took part in the Pan American Games three months later.

"It was the first time Cuba sent nine pitchers," Baez said. "It was partly because we wanted to be more competitive, and also they were changing from aluminum bats back to wood, but it was the first time that they sent nine pitchers and I was pitcher No. 9."

He went to Canada intent on helping Cuba win a major international tournament, but he was open to the possibility of a major life change.

"That was a great opportunity for me," Baez said. "I had a great spring training to make that team. I was very good at the time. There was a lot going on around me and a lot of security. I went through all that kind of stuff. I was focused on doing the best I could, but I was also looking for an opportunity to get out of there."

Now, he awaits the opportunity to go home again, though there is no guarantee that Castro's ill health will soon lead to a loosening of travel restrictions in either direction.

"Someday," he said wistfully.

Baez eventually was able to bring his parents over to the United States - five years after he arrived - but still has a brother in Cuba.

He seemed surprised to hear Angelos was once able to pull some political strings to bring Rafael Palmeiro's brother to the United States. That situation was a bit different, because Palmeiro came to the United States as a child, but Baez was impressed that the owner of the team would make such an effort for one of his players.

"If somebody could help me like that," he said, "I would be very happy."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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