I feel good today. For the first time since I landed in Havana 38 years ago to spend a week in Cuba reporting on its sports, I have fresh hope that the future of the Cuban people may someday improve.
After my time there long ago, as well as a visit for a few days in 1999 for an Orioles-Cuba game, I came home deeply saddened at what I saw and not at all hopeful about any swift shift in the tilt of history. Until you experience Cuba, the phrase “proud but excruciatingly threadbare” can’t have full meaning.
But on Tuesday, the ground may have moved a bit. The Tampa Bay Rays played the Cuban national team in Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano as the ultimate odd couple, President Obama and Cuban dictator Raul Castro, watched. Some will simply call it “baseball diplomacy” in the same sense that ping pong diplomacy made a small contribution to U.S.-China relations in the early 1970s.
But to me, knowing how profoundly Cubans love baseball, and realizing how desperately they have clung to the sport as one of their primary sources of emotional sustenance since 1959, this feels like a key part of a “new day” in relations between the countries. For generations, nothing except the tobacco crop has mattered more in Cuba than baseball; and every Cuban agrees, even that’s a close call.
If the time comes, as both countries hope, when Cuban stars can come to the United States without risking their lives in the ocean in open boats, or virtually selling themselves to human traffickers to get them to the big leagues, then it will be profoundly symbolic. Finally, something of multi-million-dollar value — anything — would be able to move between the two countries. If ballplayers, what next?
I could not imagine Cuba’s isolation until I saw it first-hand. In 1978, I was asked by a Cuban manager what Mickey Mantle was hitting these days. He’d been retired for 10 years. In ’99, I was in the “Esquina Caliente” (the hot corner) in Havana’s Parque Central where baseball fans have gathered for generations to discuss the game. Mark McGwire’s gargantuan home runs were then the talk of the sport. A Cuban fan approached me and asked, almost in a whisper, “Is this Mark McGwire a white man or a black man?” I gave a strange look. “We have heard about him,” said the fan, apologetically, with a shrug, “but none of us have ever seen a picture of him.”
Cuba is less cut off now. But not that much. So, imagine the power of a U.S. president speaking on national TV in Cuba. On Tuesday, Obama said things that seem commonplace to us, but that, in both their free-speech, free-assembly subject matter and in their casual tease-a-Castro tone, must seem stunning, perhaps even slightly liberating, to Cubans.
In ’78, I was able to travel, with a Cuban driver and translator, throughout the island for a week to report on their athletes. No other U.S. reporter had gotten such freedom of access. It took six months of arm twisting with the Cuban consulate in D.C., but the Cubans eventually risked letting me pick where I wanted to go as long as it was related to their beloved star athletes. In 1999, I returned for the O’s-Cuba game.
Both times, I returned home with the same sad core feeling. Cuba, with as inspiring and gifted a population as I’ve encountered anywhere, was a physically disintegrating disaster. The only thing holding the country together politically was the muzzle of a gun (which you saw everywhere) or the threat of prison. The only thing holding the country together sociologically was the pride, brains and industriousness of the people who made “nothing” go an incredibly long way — like one of the re-re-built ’56 Chevys or ’49 Fords on the Malecon Boulevard which, if they had an odometer, would’ve passed a million miles long ago.
Fidel Castro’s communism was the sword deep in the island’s side. But the U.S. embargo twisted it. In recent times, there has been no more tangible illustration of the invisible 90-mile wall between the countries than tales of escape by Cuban players once they became MLB stars. El Duque and Livan Hernandez risked their lives in open boats. Yasiel Puig, in effect, sold himself to criminals who promised him passage through a third country in exchange for a big cut out of his first contract.
This week in Cuba, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told a group of reporters that “I think we will have a new system for the movement of Cuban players [to the U.S.] in the relatively near future.”
Such a system will require the cooperation of MLB, the players’ union and the U.S. and Cuban governments, each with its agenda; another impediment — the embargo that Congress refuses to lift.
Devising such a system will be tough. But in 1978 it would have been inconceivable, in ’99 something that couldn’t be discussed in public. Now, so many Cuban stars have reached the U.S. that the Cuban game is emaciated. There’s little talent left to lose. But, for Cuba, there is a world to gain — literally — a world of trade partners, investment capital, tourists and economic growth.
The movement of a young Cuban star, like 19-year-old star pitcher Pavel Hernandez, from Cuba to a team in Chicago or Washington — without any melodrama — may seem small. But, sometimes, it is hard to identify the thin edge of the wedge that eventually cracks open the door to greater freedom.
For Cuba, baseball may not be one of those levers. But if you’ve spent time in the island’s ballparks, where the noise, emotion and grasp of the game simply dwarf anything seen in the U.S., then you suspect that, to the people of that long-tortured land, a round ball can look like it has a very sharp edge.