- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

More than 15 years ago, when the Baltimore Orioles traveled to Cuba to play the national team, there were dreams of the future of Cuban baseball and the United States — big dreams.

“Canada has two teams,” Raul Perez, a University of Havana professor and expert on Cuban baseball, said. “Why can’t we have a major league team? That’s what people want to see.”

I remember saying to commissioner Bud Selig that day in March 1999 at Latinoamericano Stadium in Havana, “Bud, a team in Havana? What about Washington?

“I’ve got too much on my mind to think about the [Montreal] Expos now,” Selig said.

There were also lofty expectations of the beginning of a beautiful baseball friendship between Cuba and America.

“It’s been a great experience, and this is just the beginning,” said Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who helped push for the baseball exchange program. “More major league teams will be coming here, and more Cuban teams will be coming to the United States, and that has been the whole purpose of this.”

Well, a lot has happened since then — and nothing has happened since then.

First, there is only one team in Canada now. And Selig is retired, having eventually engineered the deal to move the Expos to Washington.

The line of teams heading to Havana to play baseball? It began and ended with the Orioles in 1999.

But it was one hell of a trip.

The news last week that President Obama was moving to restore relations with Cuba and lift the embargo against the country brought back recollections of that historic 1999 Orioles trip to Havana to play the Cuban National team. Despite the dreams that never came true, it was a remarkable trip for those of us who were fortunate enough to be there.

It was like stepping back in time in a novel — Havana, the city that had become a mystery since the Cuban embargo nearly 40 years earlier. I arrived the day before the rest of a large contingent of baseball writers coming in on an organized charter by Major League Baseball. When I was checking into the hotel, the clerk told me that in a few hours, the seventh game of a playoff between Industriales and Isla de la Juventud was going to take place at Latinoamericano Stadium, the same stadium where several days later, the world would watch the Orioles play the Cuban National team.

On this night, it was just me and thousands of frenzied Cuban baseball fans.
I took what passed for a cab — a 1959 Buick, I believe — to the stadium, paid the penny or two it cost to go in, and walked into a baseball festival. With smoke hanging around the bright lights, fans brought all kinds of noisemakers — horns, tin cans, sticks — anything to play out the passion they felt.

It would be a stark contrast to the subdued scene several days later, when selected invited friends of Fidel Castro watched politely as the Orioles defeated their baseball team, 3-2.

There was nothing subdued about this playoff crowd.

Fans from Isla de la Juventud stood for the entire time their team was at bat. Horns played constantly, and as the music played and the fans chanted, women jumped on top of the dugout and danced the entire time. Industriales fans answered with their own cheers, tin cans banging constantly when their team was batting.

There were no giant video screens urging fans to cheer or do any of this. This came from the heart.

I sat in the outfield seats, surrounded by Cuban fans partying and cheering non stop. “Everybody loves baseball!” yelled Camilio Cirafu, between drinks of rum from a paper cup being passed around. “It is wonderful.”

Yes, it was.

I was on my own that night. The next day, the Cuban government had assigned someone to help me — or watch me, who knows — and I told him I wanted to find a group of Cuban youngsters playing baseball. We stopped at Desa Field, and what did I find? A group of Cuban youths playing against a group of young players from Washington and Baltimore. Part of the exchange program.

It was a wonderful moment of baseball innocence, devoid of the deep political implications that surrounded this trip.

“We never see anything of the American people,” said Jorge Butros Sr., one of the parents of the Cuban players. “It’s very beautiful to see these kids come here and play baseball. It’s wonderful.”

Now maybe it will happen again.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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