BALTIMORE – It was 20 years ago that the Orioles stepped off their charter plane at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport and became the first major league team to visit Cuba in 40 years.
The world has changed a lot since then.
Cuba, not so much.
The political relationship between the United States and the tiny communist nation warmed some when formal diplomatic relations with Cuba were restored during the Barack Obama administration. But friction between the two governments remains and Cuba still is among the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Orioles owner Peter Angelos had hoped a groundbreaking goodwill visit would help forge a new bond between the Cuban and American people. And he risked a significant public backlash for engaging with Fidel Castro’s repressive regime to organize the historic two-game series against a team of Cuban all-stars that began at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana on March 28, 1999, and concluded with a game at Camden Yards on May 3 that year.
The 20th anniversary of the game in Havana coincides with the Orioles’ regular-season opener against the New York Yankees on Thursday at Yankee Stadium.
The true historical significance of the overture remains open to debate. But it resulted in some amazing political theater that included angry demonstrations outside the Orioles’ spring training ballpark in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as the team embarked on the trip to Havana and further outrage when it was learned that admission to the game was by government invitation only.
Then there was the almost surreal experience of watching as Castro received a massive ovation from the huge Cuban crowd as he marched across the field to welcome the Orioles and sat in the stands with Angelos on one side of him and baseball commissioner Bud Selig on the other.
The Cold War had been over for eight years, but Cuba’s legacy as a Soviet proxy state – combined with an American economic embargo that still has not been lifted – kept it locked in a time warp while the rest of the world moved on.
What has changed since then is the relationship between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation, which finally struck a deal in December to allow Cuban players to jump to the major leagues under rules similar to the ones employed in the baseball hotbeds of Asia.
No longer do the Cuban stars have to risk dangerous escape attempts across the Straits of Florida, nor must they sneak away from the Cuban national team at some international tournament before taking refuge in another Caribbean country waiting for legal entry into the United States.
Their harrowing stories made for good news copy after they arrived here, but the idea that many had to take part in what essentially was human-trafficking operations was not lost on Angelos in 1999.
He was criticized heavily when general manager Syd Thrift revealed a year after the goodwill series that the Orioles would not sign Cuban defectors.
“After the goodwill created between the two countries by the visit, we – Mr. Angelos in particular – feel it best to not do anything that could be interpreted as being disrespectful or … encouraging players to defect,” Thrift said in early 2000.
Though the wording was Thrift’s and never confirmed or denied by Angelos, the Orioles owner was pilloried for supposedly placing an embargo on Cuban players in deference to Castro. He would contend later that the decision was made for the protection of the players who were putting their lives at risk to get to the United States, and his hope was that the 1999 overture to Cuba would hasten the day that players could come here legally.
Six years later, the Orioles would end that policy with the signing of pitcher Danys Baez, who defected from Cuba just months after the Orioles’ 1999 visit. They also signed outfielder Henry Urrutia in 2012 and have pursued several top Cuban players since. Promising Cuban outfield prospect Yusniel Diaz made a strong impression this spring before being reassigned to minor league camp.
It took nearly two decades for the agreement to be reached in December that finally made it unnecessary for Cuban players to defect for the opportunity to play in the major leagues.
The Orioles’ visit to Cuba was compared at the time to the historic “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” visit by an American table tennis team to China that helped reopen relations with the giant communist nation in 1971. No one would contend that it ended up bearing the same level of political significance, but it was certainly a groundbreaking moment in baseball history.
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