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O's face obstacles in bid for Cuba trip; State Dept. gives OK, but other issues loom


The Orioles are pondering a historic trip to Cuba, but the wide-ranging implications of the politically charged goodwill mission could make it difficult to get off the ground.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos has been trying to arrange a home-and-home exhibition series with the Cuban national team since 1996, and got the go-ahead from the State Department yesterday. Now, the club has to negotiate the sensitive landscape of Cuban-American relations to assure that the games are a humanitarian success and not a public relations disaster.

"Baseball is a wonderful medium for bringing people together," Angelos said in a prepared statement yesterday. "That has been demonstrated again and again in a variety of contexts. In that spirit, the Orioles welcome the opportunity to play a part in the effort to improve relations between these two peoples."

The road to Havana is paved with good intentions -- the proceeds from the two exhibitions would be expected to help impoverished Cubans -- but the proposed trip may not be well-received in some quarters of the Cuban-American community.

That obviously is a concern of baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who must give his blessing to the venture, enough so that he has spent the past two days considering the industrywide ramifications of what may go down in history as baseball's version of "pingpong diplomacy."

The public reaction was largely positive when a delegation of American table tennis players traveled to mainland China in 1970 as a prelude to widening diplomatic contact with the isolated communist country. But table tennis wasn't the national pastime, nor was it a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry with much to lose from a negative shift in public opinion.

The fallout of any overture to Fidel Castro's government -- especially in areas with large Cuban-American populations -- could be significant.

Selig has been in regular contact with Angelos about the proposed Cuban visit, but has yet to give official approval for the trip.

The Orioles have cleared only the first hurdle in a complicated process -- the approval of the Clinton administration. They also must get the approval of the Cuban government and the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Hot-button issue

The relationship between the United States and Cuba is such a hot-button issue in Florida that a proposed 1996 exhibition game between the U.S. Olympic baseball team and the Cuban team in Homestead, Fla., was moved to Millington, Tenn., under the threat of an anti-Castro backlash. The Cuban team also played in North Carolina and Georgia.

Though the games would take place far from the hotbeds of anti-Castro fervor, the Orioles still could find themselves the target of protests at their spring training site in Fort Lauderdale, a 30-minute drive from the Miami hub of Florida's Cuban population.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who traveled to Cuba in March, has thrown his support behind the mission. He acknowledged yesterday that there might be some mixed reaction from the Cuban community, but expressed confidence that the climate for such an overture has improved since the Orioles made a similar attempt to arrange a Cuban visit three years ago.

Schmoke said the Orioles have been talking with various Cuban-American organizations to get their sense of the proposal.

"There obviously is not 100 percent either way," Schmoke said. "The general response has been more favorable than it was three years ago. We hope that's a good sign. I've talked with a number of Cuban-American leaders, and it has generally been supportive."

Cuban sports officials are believed to be receptive to an Orioles visit, but a spokesman for Cuba's National Institute of Sports said the nation's athletic governing body had not yet been contacted by the Orioles or the State Department.

"We have not heard anything," the spokesman said by telephone from Havana. "We have only read the newspaper. When we get official communication from the Orioles or the United States, we will be able to discuss it."

Cuba might be wary of sending its national team to Baltimore. The last two times that the team has visited the United States, a star player has defected. Both players -- Rolando Arrojo and Osvaldo Fernandez -- now play in the major leagues.

Nevertheless, Cuban-born Anaheim Angels executive Preston Gomez, who just returned from a visit to his homeland, said yesterday that high-ranking Cuban sports officials are excited about the possibility of a major-league visit, but acknowledged that opinion in the Cuban-American community would be divided.

"The majority of Cuban people in Miami will oppose it," Gomez said, "but if you took a consensus of Cuban people in the United States, I think they feel it would help us come to some kind of understanding. I hope they let them go and break the ice."

Gomez, a former major-league player who is well-known in Cuban athletic and government circles, said he would be willing to help the Orioles bring about the series.

Other voices

The players association also has veto power over any venture that does not fall within the scope of the collective bargaining agreement. If the union is not satisfied that it is in the best interests of the Orioles players or the union membership at large, it could simply tell the players not to go, but union officials appear open to the concept of a goodwill trip.

"It's an interesting possibility, and we'll have to look at it," said Donald Fehr, union executive director. "Of course, any games will have to be approved by both Major League Baseball and the players association."

The concerns of the players union may be more pragmatic than political. If the most militant wing of Florida's anti-Castro movement takes a strong position against the trip, the possibility of spring training protests creates an important security issue for the players.

Also, the players union represents a number of Cuban defectors who have family members in Cuba, many of whom have been denied the opportunity to leave the country by the Castro regime. If those players are hostile to the idea of a goodwill trip -- and garner the support of other Latin players -- the union may be hard-pressed to approve it.

Former Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said in 1996 that he would not accompany the club on a proposed trip to Cuba. He told the Associated Press he would have taken the same stance this year if he had re-signed with the club.

"My family fled Cuba 28 years ago because my parents wanted a better life for us, myself and my brothers," Palmeiro said. "My dad is aware of everything that happened. He is anti-Castro, and so are we. For me to go back there goes against everything we stand for and believe in."

Florida Marlins catcher Jorge Fabregas, whose parents fled Cuba after Castro took power, also expressed reservations yesterday, but said he might be able to support the exhibition games if the proceeds go toward food and medicine for impoverished Cubans.

"It's a touchy subject," Fabregas said. "My parents had to leave their homeland because of that dictator. I see what my parents went through and my wife's parents went through, so it's tough.

"I'm sure, from a baseball standpoint, it would be great for a major-league team to play the best amateur team in the world. I'd love to see them play. From a political standpoint, it would bother me. I wouldn't want that guy [Castro] to have the pleasure of seeing a major-league team on his soil. But if it's for a good cause for the people of Cuba then I guess I'd be for it."

Sun staff writers Ivan Penn, Joe Mathews and Joe Strauss contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/06/99

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