Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Cuban Baseball Diplomacy

Amid Tears & Laughter
Photo courtesy: Desmond Boylan/Associated Press.
        Today -- Wednesday, December 16th -- is the second day of Major League Baseball's Good Will visit to Cuba -- a nice, sweet gesture. Four Cubans who have already made tens of millions of dollars playing baseball in the United States are among the star-studded visitors. The photo above shows Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig in an emotional embrace with his former coach on the island, Juan Arechavaleta. Puig vacillated between smiles, laughs, and unabashed tears.

       This Kevin Baxter/Los Angeles Times photo shows Cuban relatives of St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena. They awaited his return to the island for the first time in 17 years. His teary-eyed 84-year-old grandmother, Rosa Hernandez, was elated.
       This Kevin Baxter/LA Times photo shows Major League stars Alexei Ramirez on the left and Yasiel Puig flanking a worker at the Hotel Nacional in Havana. Cubans this week are welcoming the return of the multi-millionaire U. S. baseball stars.
      This photo is courtesy of Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images. It shows seven Major League Baseball stars visiting Cuba this week. They are left to right: Cuban Alexei Ramirez; Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera {baseball's best hitter}; Cuban Jose Abreu; American Clayton Kershaw {baseball's best pitcher}; Cuban Brayan Pena; Cuban Yasiel Puig; and Dominican Republican Nelson Cruz {baseball's home run champion}. The camaraderie between players, everyday Cubans, and the countries of Cuba and the United States is a positive reflection of President Obama's attempts to normalize relations between Cuba and the U. S., a process that will remain a work in process. Using baseball as a bridge to soothe a myriad of fierce animosity that has existed for decades is a natural. Cubans love baseball. The island, per capita, produces the best baseball players in the world, with the Dominican Republic second. All 30 Major League teams in the U. S. have state-of-the-art baseball fields and instructors year-around in the Dominican Republic. In contrast, the U. S. Cuban policy since 1959 -- when the overthrown Batista dictatorship fled Cuba for the U. S. -- has assaulted all things on the island, including its abiding love for baseball.
      This graphic is courtesy of Major League Baseball's Good Will mission to Cuba this week, which includes a $200,000 MLB donation to a Cuban charity, is a positive gesture to the Cuban people. And that's what counts. They are the ones who have suffered the most from six decades of U.S.-Cuban relations dominated by greed, insanity, and abject criminality. Take baseball, for example. Beyond this week's Good Will visit to the island by American Major Leaguers, a peek "Inside MLB's Cuban Pipeline" reveals the sordid aspects of America's Batistiano-dominated Cuban policy. Revolutionary Cuba since 1959 has, per capita, produced far more talented baseball players, ballet stars, and doctors than any nation. As one of the priorities in trying to overthrow Revolutionary Cuba, vast human trafficking networks have unceasingly involved legal, via a Batistiano-controlled U. S. Congress, and illegal pipelines to continually entice and encourage defections from Cuba. Cuban ballet stars from San Francisco to New York to London to Paris and to Moscow are one example. The influx of Cuban baseball stars to America is another example. One of the last anti-Cuban remnants or vestiges of the pre-Obama George W. Bush administration was/is a well-funded U. S. program to entice Cuban doctors serving in the poorest areas of many foreign nations to defect...just to hurt Cuba, not to help America. That is always the first premise of human trafficking to entice Cubans to defect. Good people, like Mr. Obama, are trying to correct such injustices. 
     The United States has had professional baseball teams since 1876 and by the 20th century the National and American Baseball Leagues dominated sports in America long before the advent of television helped spark football's emergence in both the pro and collegiate ranks. White Cubans throughout the 20th century starred in the U. S. Major leagues. In 1947 the Brooklyn Dodgers broke the color barrier with Jackie Robinson. After that, black Cubans followed...such as Sandy Amoros. That's Sandy as a young star for Mendares in Cuba. Sandy is remembered in the U. S. for helping the Dodgers in 1955 beat the New York Yankees in the World Series, the only title the Dodgers ever won in Brooklyn.
    Prior to the Brooklyn Dodgers breaking the color barrier with Jackie Robinson in 1947, black players such as pitcher Satchel Paige and slugger Buck O'Neil would have been the top stars in Major League baseball. They played in the Negro Leagues in the U. S. but also played regularly in Cuba. In fact, some black stars in the U. S. played in Cuba because they were barred from the U. S. Major Leagues prior to 1947. Don Newcombe, shown here when he pitched for Almendares in Cuba, later joined Jackie Robinson on the Brooklyn Dodgers. Newcombe then became the Dodgers ace pitcher in both Brooklyn and after their move to Los Angeles, and he's now in the Cooperstown, New York, Hall of Fame with Jackie Robinson and many other black superstars.
       In fact, many Cuban and American baseball historians believe catcher Josh Gibson is baseball's all-time best hitter, and Babe Ruth, before he died in 1948, agreed. But Josh played his entire career in the Negro Leagues, as did other superstars like Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, etc. But after Jackie Robinson in 1947, 3-time National League MVP Roy Campanella, all-time home run champ Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays, probably the best all-around player in history, Ernie Banks, and Larry Doby were among those who left the Negro Leagues when they were young and then dominated Major League Baseball for years. But Josh Gibson, who died at age 35 in January of 1947, was most likely the best hitter that ever played baseball.   
      This photo shows two rabid Cuban baseball fans in 1959 right after the Cuban Revolution overthrew the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship. That's Camilo Cienfuegos on the left and Fidel Castro on the right, the two top rebel commanders. Once they had taken over the island, they formed a team of the bearded ones, the Barbudos, and played games against top Cuban teams. Fidel, a former Athlete of the Year in Cuba, was considered a Major League pitching prospect in the 1940s by the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics, but he chose law school and revolution. Camilo was also a fine player and was still in his 20s when he died in a plane crash in the fall of 1959. After shedding their guerrilla uniforms for baseball uniforms, Camilo and Fidel expected to have somewhat normal relations with the U. S., at least until April of 1959 when Vice President Richard Nixon told Fidel face-to-face in Washington that the U.S.-backed Cuban exiles would recapture Cuba in a matter of a few weeks. After that, not even a mutual love of baseball could create a friendship between the U. S. and Cuba.
   Americans familiar with the Havana Sugar Kings are aware of how close Havana came to beating Montreal and Toronto and becoming the first non-U. S. city to have a Major League Baseball franchise. The Havana Sugar Kings were an integral part of the International League, the top MLB minor league, from 1954 till 1960. The Triple-A games in Havana played to spine-tingling, sell-out crowds. In April of 1959 when Fidel spent twelve days in the U. S., he intended to discuss a Major League team for Havana till Richard Nixon soured him on the idea. Then and now baseball experts realize that a Major League team playing in a nice stadium in Havana would have been or would be even today a flamboyant success in the Major Leagues, more so than the nearby Miami Marlins, which draws the smallest attendance in the Majors although it recently gave its best player, the oft-injured Giancarlo Stanton, a guaranteed $300 million extension to his already huge contract. A MLB team in Havana would easily triple the attendance in Miami. But, of course, even the fond memories of the Havana Sugar Kings will not make that a reality. 

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