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Cubans, O's face extra innings; Angelos group likely to return with some issues unresolved


HAVANA -- Orioles owner Peter Angelos still appears confident that his team will take part in a humanitarian home-and-home exhibition series with a team of Cuban All-Stars this spring. But the baseball delegation that visited Havana over the long holiday weekend likely will return home today without a final agreement to stage the potentially historic sports exchange.

"We've been very pleased with the reception we've received here and we intend to make every effort to resolve the questions that remain in order to bring our mission to a successful result," Angelos said last night.

There will be at least one more meeting with Cuban officials today before the delegation returns to Baltimore on an afternoon charter flight -- and there is always the possibility of a major breakthrough -- but it seems likely that both sides will have to keep working from afar to make the goodwill exchange a reality.

The two delegations will release a joint statement today, outlining the progress of the negotiations, and -- presumably -- pledging to continue in the effort to overcome obstacles that remain.

The issues range from the political to the pragmatic, as evidenced yesterday when representatives of the Orioles, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association went on an inspection tour of Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano (Latin American Stadium).

The entire delegation visited the stadium on Sunday as guests of the Cuban sports authorities and watched the popular Havana Industriales defeat Villa Clara in a National Series game. But they returned yesterday for a stadium walk-through that illustrated the many considerations that must be addressed before the Orioles can make a firm commitment to visit Cuba -- or, for that matter, before the Cuban authorities allow the exhibition series to take place.

MLB vice president Sandy Alderson, union representative Tony Bernazard and Orioles left fielder B. J. Surhoff carefully evaluated the playing conditions and came up with a long list of improvements -- almost all of them safety related -- that would have to be made before Major League Baseball and the union will sign off on the trip.

Major League Baseball has indicated a willingness to help make some of those improvements as a goodwill gesture to Cuban baseball fans, but the ability to provide that kind of assistance is likely to be restricted by the long-standing U.S. trade embargo.

Though none of the changes are structural, the cost to the Cuban sports ministry (INDER) would be prohibitive. Cuban officials indicated yesterday that most of the changes on the list already have been contemplated, but the difficulty getting materials and equipment has prevented them from upgrading Havana's most popular sports venue.

It is a sensitive subject, since that difficulty is directly related to the trade embargo, but it is the kind of nuts-and-bolts issue that has to be resolved before the games can be scheduled.

The most significant requirement is the installation of padding on the outfield wall, which would cost the Cubans at least $400,000 if they have to engage a Japanese manufacturer. It could be done for far less if the padding could be purchased from the United States and subsidized by Major League Baseball, but that would require an exemption to the trade embargo.

Still, all of the modifications are possible if both governments truly want this goodwill baseball exchange to take place. The size and layout of the stadium are more than adequate for a major-league game.

"It is very comparable, if not better, than many of the other stadiums I have seen in the Caribbean countries," Alderson said. "In terms of capacity, it will make for a very exciting exhibition game."

There was concern among some members of the U.S. delegation that the lengthy inspection might be taken the wrong way by Cuban officials, but Bernazard moved about the park with a clipboard, carefully cataloging every detail and speaking bluntly about the necessary improvements.

"We are not going to compromise the safety of the players," Bernazard said later. "They should not be offended by that."

Surhoff was more diplomatic, though he took his role just as seriously, right down to pondering the slope of the pitcher's mound.

"There's a lot of tradition in this stadium," he said. "It's the site of the finals of their playoffs. It's a little different than what we're probably used to playing in. There are some concerns that we have addressed with them. The big thing is to make sure it's safe for everyone."

The Cuban officials probably would like a similar opportunity to take a close look at Camden Yards in advance of the proposed exhibition there, but have requested instead a photographic record of the stadium. The Orioles likely will produce a video tour of Oriole Park and ship it to them after the entourage returns to Baltimore.

While the small contingent of union and MLB representatives toured Latin American Stadium, the rest of the delegation spent the afternoon in a small group negotiating session with their Cuban counterparts. The entire group reassembled in the late afternoon to draft the noncommittal joint press statement.

Still unsettled is the stickiest issue of all, the distribution of the proceeds from the exhibitions. Angelos originally envisioned the revenues going to needy Cubans through the partnership of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services and Cuba-based affiliate Caritas, but the Cuban officials have been insistent that the money be spent on hurricane relief in Central America.

The Cuban government is sensitive to any high-profile involvement by the Catholic Church -- so sensitive that the inclusion of CRS representative Tom Garofalo on the charter flight rankled the Cuban delegation, even though he has not been directly involved in the negotiations.

The U.S. government is sensitive to the perception that any proceeds would be funneled through Fidel Castro's government -- even if they are ultimately targeted toward a charitable cause -- so a concession on the part of the State Department may be necessary to finalize the deal.

Pub Date: 1/19/99

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