The 2016 baseball season is underway. The hoopla of Opening Day is behind us. Every game counts now. The Twins and my Phillies started off slowly and need to find their groove. The Twins will. As a long-suffering Phillies fan, I’ll accept a “rebuilding year.”
This week, 90 miles south of Miami, professional baseball players in Cuba were in the final round of playoffs, battling to earn the right to play in their country’s 55th National Series. Fans of Pinar Del Rio cheered when their squad evened the series at two games apiece against the Matanzas Crocodiles. Fans of the Crocodiles jeered. It was a wild pitch that scored Pinar’s go-ahead run.
Sound familiar? What lies ahead for our two countries begins with a shared passion for our — and their — Grand Old Game. Late last year, before visits by Major League Baseball, President Obama and the Rolling Stones, 40 local fans took a baseball trip to Cuba. For many Cubans, we were the first Americans they met.
Heriberto Suárez, commissioner of the Cuban Baseball Federation, apologized to us for the unseasonable rains that wiped out a few games. We drove nearly three hours to watch the last five innings of a game between Pinar Del Rio and the Havana Industriales, the Cuban league’s version of the hated New York Yankees. We watched the three Gourriel brothers, the country’s best players. Two of the brothers defected in February. We met Juan Carlos Oliva, who is a former Cuban National Team member, the current Pinar Del Rio pitching coach and the younger brother of Twins great Tony Oliva. We had dinner with the cousin of old Twins shortstop Zoilo Versalles and talked about the great Twins pitcher Camilo Pascual and others with fans like us.
We watched 7- and 8-year-olds play as their parents cheered. High school kids ran drills and an over-50-looking group played on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The flags of our two countries flew side by side at the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples in Cienfuegos before we watched a baseball academy practice game.
In short, it felt like home. Wear a team’s ball cap and a jersey or a “Vote TonyO” T-shirt, and a baseball conversation breaks out. You don’t need to understand English or Spanish to communicate passion about players, teams and games — past and present. The language is baseball.
What became obvious when chatting with fans was that the quality of their game is deteriorating and being threatened by the loss of players who desire to play in the Ligas Grandes (MLB). Last year, 150 players defected from Cuba in pursuit of their dream to play in the major leagues; 80 left the year before. Like many young people who dream of playing professional sports, most won’t ever get a contract and will remain in countries throughout the Caribbean.
If our governments don’t screw it up, baseball can be the bridge that reconnects our nations. It became obvious to us that ending the embargo is the right thing to do. In the meantime, we could send a message straight to the Cuban people and help stabilize their beloved game.
Unlike Japanese, Korean, Puerto Rican, Dominican or Venezuelan players, the Cubans can’t go home if their dreams are a bust. Whether establishing a posting system similar to what exists with Japan and South Korea or developing a different embargo workaround, we should quickly figure out a path that gives ballplayers a shot at their dream without risking their lives and decimating their country’s game. MLB and the Federation of Cuban Baseball owe it to the game — and the fans — to figure out a way to make it work. We as fans of the game then need go to bat for our fellow fans on the closest island to our south.
Get out to a ballpark and enjoy the game. As our Cuban friends taught us: “Baseball is life. The rest is sport.”
Julian Loscalzo is the tour operator for Ballpark Tours in St. Paul.