I've written articles this year in the Los Angeles Times and the Nation, as well as an entire book, Listen Yankee! on the Cuban-US rapprochement, but my favorite reporting is about baseball and coexistence. Not only because I'm an old ballplayer who's visited Cuba several times, but because baseball is the best framework for achieving real results in the immediate future. The sport is a shared passion in both our countries; baseball diplomacy already is bringing real results and the solidifying a long-term rapprochement subject to pressure on other fronts. Only a 50 percent increase in authorized American travel to Cuba this year will have equal or greater effect now that more than 100 commercial flights by a US airline are being negotiated.
What has been accomplished so far are not exactly tiny steps, nor is the process being reduced to "fits and starts" as described by the Times' Julie Hirschfield Davis, emphasizing the caustic told-you-so comments of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from her extremist position of attempting to bring down the Cuban state. (No such support for an overthrow exists in opinion polls, even among Cuban Americans, much less Cuban baseball fans.) There will be tough compromises over trade, private enterprise, compensation, human rights all of which will be protracted and tangled. But baseball might be the closer in these talks.
As a longtime advocate of restoring ties, I've never forgotten a time when Tommy Lasorda regaled me with his 1959 winter season as a leftie playing for the Cuban league. He could speak some Spanish, told long tales about the nightlife, the music, dancing and drinking, the partying by so many Italian-Americans players and entertainers. Anyone can find old footage of a much slimmer Tommy throwing curves off a Havana mound.
That was it. With the Revolution came the severing of a century of American-Cuban harmony, in a sport that arrived in Cuba as a legacy of US colonialism. Apparently the US anti-communist, pro-Batista lobby thought that the Cubans would storm and overthrow their government in a massive huelga! against the Cuban state. With an embargo killing all revenue from the bi-national pastime, it was believed here that another old Cuban ballplayer, Fidel Castro, had thrown his last fastball.
Like most American foreign-policy fantasies, this one isolated the US from cultural and economic opportunities during the past fifty years of invasions, embargoes, and non-recognition. The embargo threw Cuban athletes into the life-threatening world of being undocumented immigrants in the hands of drug cartels, smugglers, coyotes, and most humiliating of all, having to renounce their identity as Cuban nationals, severed from their country and families of origin.
Over time, however, Cuba gradually triumphed in extra innings.
In 1999 the Baltimore Orioles stepped up to the plate, under the leadership of owner Peter Angelos, a defense lawyer with more rational views than the hardliners. He pushed for a cultural exchange of sorts for three years. The Orioles visited Cuba and arranged two exhibition games between the Cuban national team and the Orioles. Baltimore won in Havana, and Cuba prevailed at Camden Yards. Peter’s son John Angelos has carried on. That was it for another sixteen years, all the fault of the US government policy and reticent MLB owners who felt trapped by the embargo.
By this decade, however, a trickle of Cubans whom were smuggled illegally into the major leagues, the total reaching about 25 by some accounts. A number proved themselves to be real stars - Joenes Cespedes, Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig among them. Baseball number crunchers realized they were reaching top levels in their positions or specialties. For example, Aroldis Chapman's fastballs were clocked at 105 mph with for the Reds, making four appearances in All-Star games.
A minor league owner named Lou Schwechheimer, with help from the Obama administration, took up the cause and won an exclusive right from Minor League Baseball to play in Cuba through the auspices of his Cuban Baseball Initiative, which includes two high-level US diplomats on its roster. His next goal is a Triple-A all star game in Havana and good will tours and clinics with top American ballplayers, including Cuban defectors. Schwechheimer said, "We're not going to be ugly Americans." (NYT, Nov. 29, 2015.)
Years of negotiating in mutual respect led last week to the eye-opening visit to Cuba of four Cuban-born major leaguers for tear-filled an thrilling reunions with their families and former teammates. Cespedes was intending to go, but his visit was diverted to another time in the near future. Also joining the home-bound Cubans were MLB stars Clayton Kershaw, Miguel Cabrera and Nelson Cruz.
As policy reform, Schwechheimer and his CBI partners are promoting a baseball carve-out, or exemption, from the US embargo. That means the MLB would be allowed to travel and invest in normal baseball arrangements with Cuba, like scouting from the stands, making offers to players, making travel legal without any abuse and, in time, negotiate whatever status in the minor or major leagues the Cuban negotiators approve mutually. Sports revenue would flow naturally to Cuba, not illicitly. And why not build a baseball complex in where Guantanamo will sooner or later be relocated? Just thinking...
If Ros-Lehtinen, Cruz and Rubio oppose Cuban-Americans playing across the waters, it will be one more case of over-reach weakening their absolutist position. But the grass is already planted on Cuban fields, stadiums being refurbished, new equipment shipped. One hopes that this becomes an issue in the 2016 presidential election. By then Obama and family will be touring Cuba.
It's truly happening after 56 years. Save a box seat for Lasorda.