If the idea of the proposed Orioles trip to play baseball in Cuba is to bring the two countries closer together, I believe it can help do just that. Baseball is a unifying link between Americans and Cubans. That's what I found out 13 years ago, when the last Baltimore baseball team--the Johns Hopkins University Blue Jays, a team that had won 31 games and lost three that year--went to Cuba to play baseball.
"What have I gotten us into?" was my initial reaction upon landing in Havana and having our small aircraft immediately surrounded by fatigue-clad soldiers carrying automatic weapons. It turns out the Cubans were having trouble with drug planes and were being careful. We were soon escorted into a reception area of the airport, where numerous dignitaries awaited us with refreshments before we were transported to our hotel. Obviously planned as a luxury hotel, the 25-story structure remained half-finished, with huge concrete slabs surrounding the structure and a hole where the pool was planned. Our accommodations were clean but Spartan.
In many ways, Havana seemed as if it had been locked in a time warp. This was May 1986, but the streets were filled with autos from the 1950s: deSotos, Plymouths, Packards. Most of the buildings were old, in disrepair and desperately needing paint. Few modern appliances could be seen anywhere outside the tourist and governmental residences.
The people we met seemed divided on their thoughts of Cuba and its government. Older Cubans seemed quite content and spoke of the improvements made since the revolution. Schoolchildren also appeared to be quite happy and were full of youthful enthusiasm. However, the young adults we met seemed troubled, desiring more from their current lifestyles. They were cautious in what they said, and feared being overheard by the wrong people.
But we didn't talk much politics. There was baseball to be played.
On our first day there, we began practicing at a small stadium in a park in Havana. As word spread that an American team was present, large numbers of people started filling the stands. When our practice ended, groups of Cubans sought out our players, while some of us approached the Cuban spectators. We had brought many old balls, bats and gloves, baseball cards, books, T-shirts and hats, which were distributed to the Cuban people, especially the young. When we passed groups of adolescents playing stickball in various parts of the city, we would hand out something to these youngsters. They always were appreciative and, although possessing little, wanted to give us something in return.
Our players were very interested in getting to know the Cuban people. We were free to travel anywhere in the city, and our players were out exploring at all hours. While they felt sorry for the Cubans when they saw their standard of living, they realized that the Cuban people were no different from Americans. The topics of discussion were much the same as those of groups of college students in the United States:
Where are the best beaches? Where do the girls go? Where can I get something to eat? How do you hit a curve ball? In fact, after their initial shyness, the Cubans were just as interested in getting to know us. As a people, they were very nostalgic, craving information about Americans and American things.
Our first game, against Havana University, was quite a thrill. Playing in the 55,000-seat Latinoamericano Stadium, our players and I felt a certain pride at hearing "The Star-Spangled Banner," which preceded the Cuban national anthem. With the stadium nearly half filled, our Hopkins team jumped on the nervous Cubans, scoring 10 runs in the top of the first inning, and coasted to a 12-4 victory. The highlight, however, was the camaraderie among players, coaches and officials of the two groups at the post-game reception. Again, preconceived differences were broken down as the groups intermingled.
It was decided that our team would play the Cuban Junior National Team for the final two games.
During the next two nights, our Blue Jays competed against the finest 20-year-old-and-under baseballers on the island. These players were selected at an early age to attend a sports school, where they would live year-round and develop their baseball skills. Playing against this group, Hopkins lost both games--4-3 in 11 innings and 6-1. After the final game, another huge banquet was held, at which both teams shook hands and eventually surrounded each other to exchange information. This was the essence of sportsmanship.
Upon leaving Cuba, my thoughts were mixed. The Cuban people had been friendly, accommodating and seemed to have the same values as us. So why the problem with Cuba? The pat answer was that "our governments just don't get along." Perhaps more exchanges similar to what the Hopkins baseball team experienced in 1986 and to what Peter Angelos proposes for this year's Orioles could again make relations between our two countries "normal."
Robert Babb is coach of the Johns Hopkins University Blue Jays baseball team.