Sunday, December 20, 2015

Cuba's Baseball Superstar

His Name Is...Tony Castro!!
Photo courtesy: Desmond Boylan/Associated Press.
        This week Major League Baseball gifted the baseball-mad island of Cuba with a highly successful three-day goodwill tour. Led by famed Hall of Famers Joe Torre and Dave Winfield, both of whom are now top MLB executives, the visit included 8 current Major League stars. That included lefty pitcher Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers, baseball's best pitcher, and Miguel Cabrera, the Venezuelan superstar with the Detroit Tigers and baseball's best hitter. But it was the return of four Cuban Major League stars -- Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Brayan Pena, and Alexei Ramirez -- that dominated the media coverage of the event, which was an offshoot of President Obama's remarkable efforts, against overwhelming odds, to normalize relations with the nearby island. The photo above shows Alexei Ramirez, the veteran shortstop for the Chicago White Sox, back in his native country instructing young Cuban baseball players at a clinic in Matanzas, Cuba. Such clinics were conducted for three days across the island.

     In addition to the numerous clinics, the mere presence of the baseball superstars from America massively thrilled the appreciative Cuban people. At times, emotions simply bubbled over. This photo by Desmond Boylan/AP was taken at the Hotel Nacional in Havana. It shows Brayan Pena, the veteran Major League catcher, greeting his 85-year-old grandmother, Rosa de las Nives, for the first time in seventeen years. The four Cubans who highlighted the goodwill tour back in their home country are all millionaires many times over and they have helped their relatives back in Cuba financially. But prior to President Obama, the strained relations between the two neighboring countries that has persisted since the 1950s prevented such things as this very classic, touching moment captured by photographer Desmond Boylan.

          Of the thousands of photos taken this week during Major League Baseball's 3-day goodwill trip to Cuba, the one above courtesy of Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images is among the most significant. It shows Alexei Ramirez conducting a clinic for Cuban youngsters. The man in the grey T-shirt is the man who made it all happen and is, in fact, the man determined to make a lot more happen, using baseball as the peaceful wedge, to help normalize relations between Cuba and the United States. His name is Tony Castro, one of Fidel's eight sons. A doctor, Tony is by far the most ubiquitous baseball promoter on the island and he is highly respected internationally, including by Major League Baseball in the United States. MLB's goodwill mission to Cuba this week was well-covered by the sports media in the United States, and for good reason. The goodwill mission itself was unique. Now there is talk of the Cincinnati Reds playing two exhibition games in Cuba this coming March. There is even talk, not revived since the 1950s, of Havana in the next decade having its own Major League team. And there is talk that Cuba can be persuaded to allow its cornucopia of baseball talent to reach the U. S. normally and not via the defection process. And there is even talk that in the 2017 World Baseball Classic Cuban superstars in the Majors will be allowed to play for Cuba, which would readily be expected to return the island back to the top rung of international baseball competition. ALL BECAUSE OF PRESIDENT OBAMA...AND NOW TONY CASTRO! That's right: OBAMA and CASTRO!
      Tony Castro shares one thing in common with his legendary, 89-year-old father Fidel: A mutual love of baseball. Tony thinks it can meld Cuba and America together.
      Tony Castro, a medical doctor, is shown here visiting his ailing and now 89-year-old father Fidel, who seems to be holding a replica of the famed yacht Gramna that took him and 81 other rebels on the perilous journey from Mexico to hook-up with Celia Sanchez's revolution against Batista. All eight of Fidel's son, including Tony, remain very devoted and loyal to their father. He, of course, also has two daughters, both of whom live in the Miami area -- one very flagrantly and one very quietly.

   Dr. Tony Castro, like all four of his brothers, is also very devoted to his mother, Dalia Soto del Valle. Dalia married Fidel in 1980 shortly after the death from cancer of his revolutionary soul-mate Celia Sanchez. Dalia is the mother of Fidel's last five sons. 
        Tony Castro is the best known of Fidel Castro's eight sons. That's because he has been seen as the team doctor and leading cheerleader for Cuban teams in televised international competitions such as the Pan Am Games, the World Baseball Classic, and the Olympics. And this week Tony hosted U. S. superstars in Cuba.
         In fact, Tony Castro is upfront in leading the push for both baseball and softball to return as Olympic sports. That has made him many friends in the United States.
       And in fact, this week even with 8 U. S. superstars and 2 Hall of Famers making headline visits to Cuba, the media still swarmed around Tony Castro for interviews. In the above photo, ESPN's Paula Lavigne is interviewing Tony. USA Today sent a top team, including its best sports columnist Nancy Armour, to the island to cover the goodwill MLB visit. One of her screaming headlines was: "CASTRO'S SON KEY TO CUBA THAW." From Matanzas, Cuba, Ms. Armour wrote: 
                      "The symbolism was striking. Exactly one year after President Obama announced the normalization of relations with Cuba, the two countries flags flew side by side atop the scoreboard of Estadio Victoria de Giron. Castro's youngest son, Antonio, has a passion for baseball rather than the family business of politics. But he is well aware -- more than ever after the last three days -- of how baseball could be a catalyst to help repair five decades of bitterness and distrust between the U. S. and Cuban governments." Nancy Armour, in America's largest newspaper, quoted Tony Castro as saying, "We've conscious of what baseball means. What we've experienced today, and what we've experienced these last couple of days, is very exciting." Yes, exciting for baseball and for U.S.-Cuban relations.

     Like his father Fidel, Tony Castro was a baseball star in his youth. But now as a doctor and an international ambassador for baseball, Tony's love for golf is also paramount, and he's quite good at the sport. In this photo, Tony is being awarded a trophy for winning a golf tournament. He joked, "Being Fidel's son was a non-factor today, please believe me!"
        David Haugh is the top Sports Columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He was in Cuba this week to cover Major League Baseball's goodwill tour of the island. On Saturday, Dec. 19th-2015, the title of his column was: "A Castro Offers Hope For A U.S.-Cuba Future In Baseball." He wrote:
                              "As Antonio Castro charismatically worked the crowd like a trained politician, wearing Under Armour sunglasses and a Nike T-shirt, he would have blended in at any corporate-fueled baseball stadium in America. In a week full of symbolism, Castro connected as the handsome face of Cuba baseball, a lively voice that offered hope that this landmark trip meant more than just a getaway to a warm climate." David Haugh wrote about Tony Castro "warmly mingling with Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig, two Cuban and now American superstars who defected from his country in the dead of night in a small boat." But coolly and positively, Tony Castro told David Haugh, "We're working on a new relationship, one based on respect where baseball is the language spoken." Haugh's entire article is worth reading.
      And so, this stupefying week in Cuba revealed anew that Dr. Tony Castro's two main passions and focuses right now are {1} baseball and {2} using baseball to help President Obama's long-shot goal of normalizing relations between Cuba and the United States. If Tony gets his way, Cubans will be playing baseball in the U. S. without having to defect. If Tony gets his way, Cuban superstars in the U. S. will be playing for Cuba in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. If Tony gets his way, Havana will be the 31st Major League Baseball city in North America within the next decade. If Tony has his way, both baseball and softball will return to the Olympics. And if Tony gets his way, Cuba and the United States will have normal relations within five years. All of that, of course, sounds good for both Cuba and America. The only problem is, it doesn't sound good for two generations of Cubans and Americans who have feasted -- revengefully, economically, and politically -- from the rancor that has existed between the two neighbors for six long and costly decades. So while Tony Castro may have the majority of Cubans, Americans, and the world's citizens behind him, he still might lose in his overall baseball diplomacy. But, his goals and amity are worthwhile.

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