For all their acrimony during the past 50-plus years, the United States and Cuba have shared a common passion: baseball.
It is America’s “national pastime” and an obsession in the island nation 150 kilometers to the south, where students returning from the U.S. brought the game in the mid-1800s.
Tuesday’s game in Havana between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team is the latest link in a chain connecting the countries, particularly since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.
“Baseball is obviously something that the United States and the Cuban people share a common love of and it’s part of both of our heritages, and frankly, also part of the type of exchanges that we are pursuing in business, in culture, in the arts, in sports that can bring the American and Cuban people closer together,” U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit that includes attending the game.
Fans in both countries pack stadiums to cheer for their favorite teams. That passion does not disappear when one of those fans becomes president.
In the U.S., there is a tradition of presidents throwing out ceremonial first pitches at games going back to Howard Taft at a game in Washington in 1910.
One hundred years later, Obama took the mound at a different stadium in Washington to deliver his pitch. He laughed off good-natured boos from the home crowd as he put on a hat from his beloved Chicago White Sox.
First pitch honors
Rhodes said Obama was not expected to throw out the first pitch in Havana.
Fidel Castro had that honor on several occasions, and the huge baseball fan frequently attended games at Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano.
That is the same venue hosting Tuesday’s game, and where in 2002 former U.S. President Jimmy Carter tossed out the first pitch at a Cuban league all-star game. The recipient of that pitch was, of course, Castro.
The stadium was also home to the Havana Cubans, a minor league affiliate of the Washington Senators, beginning in 1946. They later became the Havana Sugar Kings, affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds, and relocated to the United States in the middle of the 1960 season because of the breakdown in U.S.-Cuba relations.
After a few more moves and affiliation changes, that franchise is now the Norfolk Tides, the Triple-A team of Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles.
The last MLB team to play in Cuba was the Orioles in 1999. Castro was there, speaking with Orioles players and coaches before the game that the Orioles won 3-2. Cuba won the rematch weeks later in Baltimore, 12-6.
Obama’s visit is part of a new push to thaw relations between the two countries that has included reopening embassies and the U.S. relaxing restrictions on travel and business.
Baseball is involved, too. Since the embargo, Cuban players who want to play for an MLB team have had to defect from Cuba, sometimes involving harrowing journeys to escape.
The league and its players association want that to change, but Cuba is not interested in letting its most talented players walk away with nothing in return.
Major League Baseball has proposed instituting a system that would send a portion of Cuban players’ salaries to a nongovernmental organization in Cuba for sports and education projects there. MLB teams have been able to sign players from teams in Japan’s professional league under a bidding system that pays the Japanese club up to $20 million for the player’s release.
One of the people involved in discussions between Cuba and MLB executives during the past few years is the vice president of Cuba’s baseball federation, Antonio Castro, the son of Fidel and nephew of President Raul Castro.
MLB sent a group of players, including Cubans Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, Brayan Pena and Alexei Ramirez, to Cuba in December on a goodwill trip. They did not play any games; instead, they talked with fans and took part in youth clinics.
Antonio Castro said then that Cuba and MLB are developing a new relationship.
"This is the language of baseball that unifies our nations, our people,” he told ESPN. “It's an opportunity for another day. It starts to move [us] forward into a new era of our relationship. We think in the future, we have no issues.”