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Cuba trip is on deck for Angelos; O's owner leads group to island this weekend to push 2-game series; Exhibitions still up in air; Baseball, relief officials will join contingent


Orioles owner Peter Angelos and a delegation representing Major League Baseball and Catholic Relief Services are expected to travel to Cuba this weekend for talks aimed at scheduling a proposed home-and-home exhibition series between the Orioles and a team of top Cuban amateur players.

Angelos and his son Louis have worked for the past week to put together the goodwill trip, during which he hopes to reach an agreement with Cuban sports officials to allow the Orioles to visit Cuba for a game this spring and play host to a second game at Camden Yards.

The exhibition series was first suggested by Angelos in 1996, but the State Department denied permission to explore the possibility because of a long-standing prohibition against direct commerce between the United States and the island nation.

The issue resurfaced last week, when the Clinton administration announced a new initiative to expand contact with the Cuban people, and included in the announcement permission for the Orioles to make the goodwill trip, so long as the proceeds from the exhibition series go directly to charity.

Though the Cuban sports authorities are believed to be in favor of at least the half of the exhibition series that would be played in Cuba -- based on their unofficial response to the 1996 overture -- the strained relationship between the two governments makes the outcome of the negotiations uncertain.

Angelos spoke publicly about the trip once last week, but he has been reluctant to say much in advance of the mission because of the sensitive nature of the negotiations.

The traveling party is expected to include Angelos, Louis Angelos, club counsel Russell Smouse, consultant Scott Armstrong, four representatives of Major League Baseball (including a representative of the Major League Baseball Players Association) and officials of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), who have been advising the Orioles on the humanitarian mission.

Proceeds to charity

The proceeds from gate receipts and broadcast rights generated by the exhibition series likely would be directed to CRS, which has sent approximately $20 million worth of food and medical supplies to Cuba since 1992, or Caritas, a Cuba-based organization affiliated with CRS that actually distributes the aid.

Though the presence of Major League Baseball and players union officials is a tacit endorsement of the venture, the plan for the proposed series still has to gain final approval from both entities, as well as the State Department and the Cuban government.

Cuban officials may welcome a visit by the Orioles -- who would be the first major-league team to play on Cuban soil since the Brooklyn Dodgers held spring training in Havana in 1947 -- but could be wary of sending a team of Cuban all-stars to Baltimore, because of the possibility of defections. Each of the last two times the Cuban national team played in the United States, a player walked off the team and eventually signed with a major-league club.

Committed to trip

The hurdles are high, but Angelos is not likely to shy from the challenge. His commitment to the goodwill mission has been illustrated by the nonstop effort to bring together the preliminary trip in a short time frame. Louis Angelos has been the point man for the complex organizing effort.

If the negotiations are successful, the exhibition series would not only be a historic first with dynamic political and humanitarian implications, but also a coup for Major League Baseball's international outreach program -- highlighting a season in which the San Diego Padres are scheduled to play their regular-season opener against the Colorado Rockies in Monterrey, Mexico.

The global thrust is expected to continue in 2000, perhaps with the Seattle Mariners opening the regular season with a three-game series in Japan. MLB International director Tim Brosnan hinted at the possibility in an article in the Seattle Times this week, but no official announcement is expected soon.

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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