Under normal circumstances, the final score of an exhibition doesn’t mean very much. That is, until Tuesday afternoon at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana.
The Cuban National team was playing the Tampa Bay Rays for keeps and they wanted to win, for themselves, for the people and for the pride of the country. That was because it was the first time since the spring training of 1999 when a major league team took the field on the island nation.
This was also a historic game that brought together the presidents of two countries in baseball solidarity.
Cuba, unfortunately, was unarmed in this contest with their baseball system pillaged by defections. There was no home run threat, although they did hit one that accounted for their only run, because José Abreu, Yoenis Céspedes, Jorge Soler and Yasiel Puig were drawing paychecks in the states. The pitching was respectable, but how can you compete against a lineup comprised of many big leaguers when Jose Fernandez and Aroldis Chapman are firing strikes with the Marlins and Yankees, respectively?
Some have politicized Mr. Obama’s trip like Jedediah Bila, a Fox News analyst who was co-hosting The View today, slamming him for doing the wave with Raúl Castro, the President of Cuba. Her suggestion was that he should have been in Belgium giving a speech. Many on the panel rejected the premise as if his presence after the terror attacks would somehow change things.
Others, like the old guard in Miami, New York and other Cuban communities, did not believe our president should be rubbing shoulders with the brother of the man who forced them to defect by any means necessary leaving everything behind, including family members. The hatred is palpable and that feeling is still shared by the younger generation, like Jose Fernandez, for what the Castros did to their family.
Even ESPN radio host Dan Le Batard wrote a poignant piece in the Miami Herald about his parents and grandparents plight fleeing the Castro regime. There aren’t many people who will deny the kind of animosity that still runs deep in Cuban communities. It is the same as those who escaped the Holocaust and the generations that followed. No one outside these horrors can begin to understand.
However, there is also a time to move on. From all indications, Raúl Castro has either changed, not likely, mellowed, possibly, or sees the earth shifting under his feet. The latter may be more toward the truth, but we have to remember this is still Fidel’s country even though he is more in the shadows than ever.
Raúl and Obama looked downright friendly at the game sitting side by side. They both participated in doing the wave. When the Rays scored the first run of the game, it was Raúl who reached over to shake hands with a broad smile. Both came off as natural and not forced. And therein lies a story that is yet to be written. The only question remains, when?
Big things come after little gestures. Some have forgotten that more than a generation ago there was ping-pong, China and another president, Richard Nixon, who used a little sport toward big changes. If there was ever a bond between the United States and Cuba, it is baseball. It may be bigger than any of us who are watching and waiting to see what happens next.
Let’s be clear. Change is not going to come overnight, however, the door has been cracked just enough to let the healing begin. Baseball is an international game, a religion in Cuba despite soccer being forced on them when the Russians inhabited the island during the missile crisis that captivated the world for 13 nail-biting days in 1962.
Baseball had been a healer before. The most recent was when Mike Piazza and the Mets lifted New York and the country with an emotional home run in the first MLB game after the tragedy that was 9/11. Baseball is once again in the middle of something that could change an entire culture.
However, it is important that Major League Baseball continue to reach across the Straits of Florida to Cuba without having to wait another 17 years to do so. The sport needs to help keep Estadio Latinoamericano as a showplace for baseball. Working to create Little League fields around the country and offering help with teaching and equipment is also a must. This must not be a one-and-done then letting politicians do the rest. It has to be a joint venture because history cannot be denied.
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