Odds Are Good For O's Return To Cuba

November 14, 2009|By Peter Schmuck

Ten years after the Orioles made their controversial goodwill trip to Cuba, club owner Peter Angelos apparently would like to take another shot at improving relations between the United States and the isolated island nation with a new round of baseball diplomacy.

I wouldn't count him out.

Angelos told the Associated Press that he would like to return to Havana with the Orioles this spring, and the climate for such a trip might be better right now than it has been at any time since the Clinton administration gave tacit approval for the first home-and-home goodwill series.

"Hopefully as next spring approaches, both governments will see clearer to improve the relations and make it rather easy for there to be a reciprocal arrangement," said Angelos, who declined to comment to The Baltimore Sun on Friday. "Personally, I think the relations between the two countries should be clearly and emphatically re-established."

The Obama administration already has taken steps to improve relations with Cuba, so it shouldn't be that difficult for the Orioles to get government approval to bypass the long-standing trade and travel embargo that has been imposed by the U.S. government since the early 1960s. State Department officials said Friday that they did not know of any discussions with the Orioles about a second goodwill trip, though Angelos said there have been informal talks with the government but he has yet to hear back.

The devil is in the details, of course, but it's never a good idea to bet against Angelos when he sets his mind to something, unless it's getting the Orioles back to the playoffs.

He led a delegation to Cuba in early 1999 to negotiate the terms and arrangements for the first appearance by a major league team in Cuba in nearly four decades. And he successfully navigated political minefields in both Washington and Havana to make the historic series a reality.

I have some special insight into the process because I was part of that delegation, which also included Lou Angelos, the owner's son, MLB executive Sandy Alderson and a contingent from the commissioner's office, Tony Bernazard and B.J. Surhoff (representing the players union), Washington political consultant Scott Armstrong and Tom Garafalo of Catholic Charities, which was to be a beneficiary of the event.

It probably seemed like a simple enough negotiation on the surface, but the political riptide was pretty fierce.

The Cuban-American community in Florida came out strongly against any overture to the repressive government of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and it organized demonstrations at the Orioles' then spring training site in Fort Lauderdale.

The logistical issues also were complex because Havana's Latin American Stadium had to be upgraded to major league standards at MLB expense, which required special waivers to sidestep the economic embargo.

Angelos was positioned well to make it all happen because of his status as a top Democratic campaign donor. But he would have to weather more political blow back when he and commissioner Bud Selig were thrust into the uncomfortable - but diplomatically unavoidable - position of being seated on each side of Castro during the internationally televised game.

The game also lost a bit of its luster when it was revealed days earlier that the Cuban sports ministry had distributed most of the tickets to the game to government employees and well-connected political allies instead of the common folk.

The Orioles won a one-run game in 11 innings in Havana, but the team of Cuban all-stars traveled to Baltimore five weeks later and scored a one-sided victory at Camden Yards.

There was talk of future trips involving other major league teams, but the diplomatic climate cooled during the Bush administration and Major League Baseball turned its international attention toward the Far East.

If you recall, there was great suspicion at the time that Angelos had embarked on his Cuban adventure to position the Orioles in case a political shift in Cuba made the top players there available to major league clubs. That hasn't happened, and the Orioles have never been a major player in the market for Cuban defectors.

Ten years later, the Orioles might get another chance to paint Havana orange and black. It's a complicated proposition, but it could happen.

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM), and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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