Rugby World Cup
This Week's Issue
Life of Reilly
SI for Women
CNN/SI - TV
Golf Pro Shop
MLB Gear Store
NFL Gear Store
SI FOR KIDS
Orioles' game in Cuba drawing plenty of criticism
Posted: Friday March 26, 1999 04:03 PM
ATLANTA (CNN/SI) -- It began as a gesture of goodwill and a promotional opportunity.
But since Major League Baseball and the State Department gave the Baltimore Orioles their blessing to play ball in Cuba, there has been a firestorm of criticism.
"Believe me these American players are not going to play for the people of Cuba," one Cuban protester said. "They're going to play to satisfy the ego of a big tyrant -- Castro."
Fidel Castro has ruled Cuba with an iron fist for 40 years since his rebel army came out of the mountains, overthrew the corrupt military government of general Fulgencio Batista and converted the island into a communist country.
The U.S. has had a complete economic embargo against Cuba for 36 years and Castro has been condemned by most of the free world, chiefly because of his record of human rights abuses against those who dare disagree with him.
"There's no way to know what they're going through and we don't pretend to," Baltimore outfielder B.J. Surhoff said. "That being said as players we're going down there to play a game and that's the extent of it."
The critics who have protested this foray into Cuba say the Orioles and Major League Baseball are naive in thinking that their Sunday afternoon date in Havana is only a game.
"Having a team with 'Cuba' on its jersey, I think it really represents a regime, not a country," said Roberto Gonzalez-Echevarria, author of The Pride of Havana. "It is already a political statement."
Veteran major league umpire Rich Garcia is of Cuban descent, and calls the decision to play there a disgrace. He says it slaps Cuban people in America in the face and does nothing to ease the pain of divided families and the lack of basic human rights that exist less than 90 miles from Florida.
"My God, you can't bring a Cuban cigar across the U.S. border yet we're going to take a baseball team over there and try to be nice to this man," Garcia said.
"I have a bad feeling about it, but this is all about sensitivity. This is all about people's feelings. This is about people's families. This is about people that have suffered over there, people that have died coming across from Cuba in a boat."
There are nine Cuban-born players on current major league rosters, among them Jose Canseco, whose family fled the island for the U.S. when he was a baby. Canseco refused to be interviewed on the subject of the upcoming game in Havana.
Yankees coach and former major leaguer Jose Cardenal still has family in his native Cuba and also declined to discuss the game. Some other former players of Cuban descent stopped well short of denouncing the trip, but questioned the benefit.
"I'm not going to knock anybody down or crucify anybody, cause that's not my business," former pitcher Luis Tiant said. "If they want to go, they can go."
"It's not a professional team they're going to play," former Reds star Tony Perez said. "I don't know why that would help baseball."
In a statement, baseball commissioner Bud Selig said, "We're very sensitive to all the ramifications of our going. In the end, the State Department and everyone else connected with the trip believed it was the right thing to do."
It's a perspective based on the belief that open cultural exchange rather than isolation can facilitate change in Cuba.
"We see this as a people to people exchange as a private initiative," Orioles vice chairman Joe Foss said. "We're not naive to think that there's not some political fallout or consequences to all this. We hope that those political outcomes are going to be nothing but positive for everybody."
But others in the U.S. government believe otherwise. Congressman Robert Menendez is of Cuban heritage and strongly opposes the Orioles' trip.
On Monday, Menendez sent letters to each of the Orioles urging them to reconsider their participation in the exhibition game, as well as a letter to the President asking for the revocation of Baltimore's license to play in Cuba.
"I hope Major League Baseball understands it is not promoting democracy inside of Cuba," Menendez said. "On the contrary, they're playing ball with a dictatorship."
The Cuban team will come to Baltimore and play the Orioles on May 3. Proceeds from the two games, which were a sticking point in the negotiations, will be used mainly to support baseball and other sports activities. The Clinton administration does not want profits going to Castro's government.
But for Sunday's game in Havana, the economic caste system that exists in Cuba -- between the few people who have buying power dollars and the majority who live in poverty with pesos -- all but assures the masses won't be at the game or be allowed to express themselves on record.
"There is no way of really knowing who is going to go to the stadium," Gonzalez-Echevarria said. "Who is going to watch the game? How many people can you interview? And those that you interview, how do you know they're telling you what they feel when they can be the object of reprisals?"
But when they total up Sunday's score, many feel the only winner will be Castro -- a former pitcher who's about to hit a home run in the propaganda department by showing the world he can make the U.S. play ball with him after all.
Copyright © 1999 CNN/SI. A Time Warner Company.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.