HAVANA: Cuba’s national baseball team is lining up for perhaps its most important—not to mention stressful—game ever, with visiting US President Barack Obama and possibly President Raul Castro in the stadium.
The friendly on Tuesday between the Cubans and Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays will be a unique mixture of high-level sport, diplomacy — and perhaps business.
For Obama, the occasion will cap the first visit by a sitting US president to the communist island in 88 years.
Cuba has given a facelift to its Latinoamericano Stadium in Havana in preparation for a game that will demonstrate, perhaps better than any diplomacy, how much the United States and Cuba have in common.
While most of Latin America is football-mad, Cuba and several Caribbean islands have long followed the US lead, adopting — and excelling in — baseball, perhaps the quintessential US sport.
Myth has it that Fidel Castro tried out for professional US teams in the 1940s, and even if the story is untrue, he’s an avid fan of the game.
So there will be a lot at stake on Tuesday—and not just the final score.
The upcoming game “is going to be a bit different,” said Omar Linares, 47, the most storied Cuban batter in recent history.
“A president of the United States will come, but even if he didn’t come… the tension would be the same, because to say Major League is to say the best baseball in the world,” said Linares, who is on the national team’s technical staff.
Separating baseball from politics
In 1999, Cuba’s national team faced the Baltimore Orioles for two games in Havana and Baltimore.
It was the first friendly of its type since the Castro regime took power in Cuba in 1959. The result was perfectly diplomatic: each team winning its home game.
Another veteran Cuban star helping today’s national team, Orestes Kindelan, told AFP he hopes that the Cuba-Tampa Bay game will dispel doubts about the future of Cuban baseball, which has been caught up in the tortuous US-Cuban political relationship.
Despite both countries’ love of the game, the Castro regime strictly limits visits abroad, while US teams are barred from coming to Cuba to recruit players.
Despite that, some of Cuba’s best baseball players have for decades fled to seek a new life in the United States and lucrative spots on Major League teams.
In a complicated process due to the US trade embargo on Cuba, they must initially land in a third country where they can then become free agents.
In 2015 alone, more than 100 Cuban ball players made the trip, a talent drain that has depleted the island’s teams.
Cuba attempts to dissuade these baseball “deserters” by temporarily preventing them from returning to the island and banning them from joining the national team.
In tune with the rapprochement between the former Cold War enemies, Cuba and the US teams last year began talks on formalizing the hiring process. Many Cubans are confident that the upcoming friendly game will boost the talks.
“It’s good that it seems this opening is about to begin,” said Higinio Velez, president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, speaking after a visit with reporters to the Latinoamericano Stadium.
“We need this done now,” Linares said, “so that Cubans can go play in the Major Leagues without having to leave the country on a raft.”
A formal hiring arrangement “would finalize these illegal departures that are doing so much damage to us,” he said.
“This is the moment to take the step,” Kindelan said, “so that the ball players can come and go and that they can play ball without problems, fully separate from politics.”