WASHINGTON -- More than a decade ago, Scott Armstrong started a crusade that has led to Sunday's Orioles game in Havana -- a campaign that says as much about his will to make impossible things happen as about his unabashed eagerness to embrace Cuba.
The burly behind-the-scenes promoter of the Cuba game -- and a return match in Baltimore -- does not care if his politics insults enemies of Fidel Castro's regime: He has wanted this ball-field diplomacy for too long.
When Baltimore Orioles principal owner Peter G. Angelos finally began pushing for a game against the Cubans, Armstrong was right behind him, playing the negotiator, the lobbyist, the ramrod.
A former journalist whose eclectic interests are evident in the reams of newspapers and declassified documents that seem to have exploded in the rooms of his Washington home,
Armstrong is used to adopting controversial stances. The Cuba game is one.
Armstrong does not apologize for his receptive approach to the Cuban government, or his desire to see the U.S. government take a cue from these games to bring Cuba back in the fold.
He describes Castro as "a naughty boy who has matured into a critic of U.S. policy." And he mocks restrictive U.S. trade policies -- like the ones controlling the import of baseball bats to Cuba for Sunday's game.
"Those bats might be used to invade Florida," Armstrong joked. More than anything, though, he seems to respond to the Cuban people.
"They are an educated, open, warm people who have the same aspirations Americans do," Armstrong said, after biting the cherry off his Mai Tai in a Chinese restaurant. "They have taken one of the worst hellholes on earth and turned it into a reasonable place -- there's less poverty there than there is in most of L.A. Nobody's starving to death."
Angelos calls Armstrong an "idealist." Both men share a distaste for the lack of freedom in Cuba, but say they are nevertheless eager to re-establish ties with Havana.
Critics condemn Armstrong's advocacy for this game, calling him an apologist for Castro. Armstrong's connections with Cuban diplomats and other government officials have undermined U.S. policies that are meant to curb human-rights violations in the communist country, they say.
"Scott Armstrong is a charter member of the Castro lobby," said Jose Cardenas, Washington director of the Cuban-American Foundation, an anti-Castro group. "He has dedicated himself to undermining at every possible turn a hard U.S. line toward the Castro regime."
Armstrong's association with hotly contested causes is nothing new. When he arrived in Washington in 1973 for a job on the Senate Watergate committee, sporting long hair and bushy sideburns, one might have predicted he would not shy from a fight.
The way Armstrong sees it, he is battling Washington's refusal to give up its Cold War policy on Cuba. Still, he seems just as interested in solving difficult puzzles -- bringing Cuba together with the major leagues -- as he does in making any political statement about Cuba.
"We're the proverbial quadriplegic wallpaper hanger," he says of himself and others who have worked to make the game happen.
Busy but without job
Armstrong is a larger-than-life insider -- a man who seems to know everybody by coincidence, a person who is always busy but doesn't actually have a job.
Armstrong, 53, who as a reporter became a legend at the Washington Post for conducting a 16-hour interview, now seems to be in the business of understanding how Washington works once the reporters leave the room.
Armstrong, who will be paid by the Orioles for his services, made Sunday's game a personal mission from the start. The effort required hundreds of hours of talks, engaging all manner of powerful characters -- Angelos and his two business-associate sons, top State Department officials and Cuban diplomats.
"Some people dropped down dead," Armstrong said of reluctant officials with whom he has negotiated. "And some people dropped down alive." And the ones left standing helped arrange the game in Havana with a rematch in Baltimore on May 3.
"He's a doer," said his friend Seymour Hersh, the journalist and author. "He likes action and he likes to be in the middle of things." Warmly, he added, "He's sort of an operator."
Armstrong still seems like a reporter straight out of central casting -- with his cussing, opinionated outbursts, and utter lack of fussiness. "Want some Hunan fish?" he barks as he studies the menu over lunch. "It's messy. Let's get it."
An adopted son of middle class parents in Wheaton, Ill., Armstrong seemed to have had connections from the start. In high school, he helped run a student-council campaign for his classmate Bob Woodward. Woodward lost the campaign, but remained a friend and colleague, and the two later co-wrote "The Brethren," a 1979 best-seller about the Supreme Court.
After attending Yale University with Woodward -- he worked his way through college by alternately selling Rolls-Royces and doing teen-age gang-war interventions -- he went on to Harvard Law School. But he quit after a year and made his way to the Watergate committee, where he was credited with eliciting testimony on the existence of Nixon's secret tapes. He landed as a reporter at the Post in 1976.
Most recently, Armstrong founded the National Security Archive, which seeks to declassify government documents for research. Over his career, he has pursued an array of jobs -- including a stint as a private investigator -- and continues to work on a book about national security.
Better to know someone
After all these years in Washington, he says, he knows how the city really works. "It's more important if you know someone than if you're logical or if you're just," he said. And so, he knows people.
"I won't drop names," he said. "OK, I will."
He went on to describe his private dinner with Robert Redford, who had been cast as Woodward in the movie "All the President's Men" and was pumping Armstrong for information about him.
"There's a kind of Zelig quality to him," Woodward said of Armstrong. "It's the eclectic, totally curious mind operating on the world."
In the late 1970s, Armstrong traveled to Cuba for the first time. And that began the journey toward a baseball game that associates say he has steadfastly refused to abandon.
"Scott's the one who has never let other people stop," said Bob Hauptman, a Washington consultant who has worked with Armstrong on settling the logistics of the game. "Peter [Angelos] was more committed than the previous people, and things just happened."
Armstrong lobbied a slew of baseball decision-makers: In the mid-1980s, he went to Edward Bennett Williams, then the Orioles owner; next, he tried Major League Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti; and later, he moved on to the players union during the baseball strike.
But nothing materialized until 1995, when Armstrong met Rick Schaeffer, a Baltimore lawyer and friend of Angelos, at a lunch arranged by Mike Farrell, the former "M*A*S*H." star and a mutual acquaintance of Armstrong and Schaeffer. That lunch led, finally, to a meeting with Armstrong and Angelos at Camden Yards, where the Orioles owner jumped on the idea of the game.
Conflicts over how the proceeds from such a game would be spent nearly foiled the effort and led to testy late-night talks in a Washington law office March 6.
Armstrong, afraid the deal was falling apart, made a 2 a.m. phone call to President Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, whose continued support for the game was critical. Armstrong is a friend of Berger; their children go to the same exclusive Georgetown Day School in Washington.
Berger's wife picked up the phone.
"I said, 'Susan, I wouldn't ask to wake Sandy but it's important because we're in the middle of a bunch of renegade lawyers,' " said Armstrong who said she handed the phone to her husband. Berger told the State Department negotiators to wrap it up, and the talks achieved success. Armstrong sent Susan Berger a dozen yellow roses the next day.
Last Sunday, Armstrong's wife, Barbara Guss, ran last-minute errands for the family's trip to the game -- they will be taking some of their five children. Armstrong seemed to steel himself for the experience, loudly predicting, "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong."
But he was smiling when he said it.
Pub Date: 3/26/99