HAVANA — Cuba’s baseball commissioner said he would welcome the Nationals to Havana to play a spring break game next year and would be pleased to work toward reciprocating and bringing the Cuban national team to Washington for an exhibition game.
“It would be very good to have the Washington team here . . . and Washington has invited us to return to play there, to make it an exchange, possibly a couple weeks apart,” said Heriberto Suárez, Cuba’s national baseball commissioner.
Suarez’s comments were made here during an interview recently with The Washington Post and came amid a hard press for such an exchange by a delegation led by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
An exchange of baseball diplomacy could come as negotiations may well be ongoing between the Cuban government, the next U.S. presidential administration and Major League Baseball to craft a legal framework for Cuban players to legally come to the United States to play in the big leagues.
The Castro regime, the Obama administration and MLB have been privately talking for months to figure out how to allow Cuban players to do so. And Cuban officials are using a historic visit to Cuba this month by President Obama to press for progress on the deal as defections to the United States are decimating Cuba’s top baseball league.
Obama plans to attend an exhibition game on March 22 between the Cuban team and the Tampa Bay Rays in Havana. It will be only the second such game on Cuban soil since the Cold War. The last game was 17 years ago, between the Cubans and Baltimore Orioles, who lobbied for years for the exchange and brought the Cuban team to play in Baltimore.
Bringing the Cuban team to D.C. could be the most tangible early result of Bowser’s trip to Cuba.
But it will be up to MLB to decide where the Cuban team might play its first game on U.S. soil since Obama announced an easing of diplomatic relations with the country in 2014.
MLB held a lottery last year to decide which team would play this month’s exhibition game in Havana because so many in the league were interested in doing so.
MLB’s top lawyer, Dan Halem, said the process may have to be decided by lottery in order to keep the process fair. And D.C. is certainly not the only city interested in solidifying ties with Cuba through baseball.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) last year traveled to Cuba and handed out New York Mets and New York Yankees hats at the presidential mansion. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) took a dozen baseballs signed by Nolan Ryan during his visit.
Bowser, the D.C. mayor, brought a jersey signed by the entire Nationals team to present to Cuba’s minister of tourism. She gave Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro, another Nationals jersey embroidered with the name CASTRO on the back. And Brian Kenner, Bowser’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, presented Suárez with a Nationals cap and a ball signed by National League MVP Bryce Harper before laying out plans for bringing the Cuban team to D.C.
Bowser’s administration invited representatives of the Nationals to travel with the delegation, which was organized by the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
No one from the Nationals did, however, out of apparent concern that doing so could run afoul of the league guidance not to lobby for such exchanges with Cuba.
Nationals spokeswoman Jennifer Giglio said before the trip: “Mayor Bowser is an enthusiastic promoter of her hometown. For her, sports and recreation is an element of building relationships overseas. We support her efforts to promote the city in the US and overseas.”
On the question of the Nationals participating in an exchange with the Cuban national team: “”A number of clubs have expressed interest in games — we are one of them — but that is something we would pursue in conjunction with Major League Baseball.”
Bowser chief of staff John Falcicchio was more direct.
“We want the Cuban national team to come play in Washington and believe the nation’s capital is a symbolic place for that game to occur.”
John Wagner contributed to this report from Washington