HAVANA -- The sun did not rise on a democratic Cuba yesterday, but there was little doubt that Sunday's goodwill exhibition game between the Orioles and selected members of the Cuban National Team had an impact on the strained relationship between the United States and one of its closest neighbors.
The day after the Orioles became the first American major-league team to play on Cuban soil in 40 years, the streets of Havana were buzzing with talk of more American visits, and the president of the Cuban Parliament seemed ready to take baseball diplomacy into extra innings.
Ricardo Alarcon, who had distanced himself from the January negotiations to schedule the exhibition game at Latin American Stadium and an ensuing game at Camden Yards, told reporters that the success of the game proved "that it is possible to have exchanges to develop a relationship between the two countries."
"I don't know how many baseball games we will have to carry out until we arrive at that point, but if it takes many games, I hope we win more games than we lose. This reflects the possibilities that can exist between two countries to have a normal, fruitful, peaceful interchange based on mutual respect."
The next game already is scheduled for May 3 at Camden Yards and there are indications that it will not be the last. The Anaheim Angels already have requested a license from the U.S. State Department to pursue a similar venture -- probably next spring -- and major-league officials have hinted that it could become an annual affair.
Of course, everything depends on a continuing thaw in the relations between the two countries. There has been recent speculation that the Cuban government may expel an American human rights specialist stationed at the U.S. Interest Section, which could temper the good feelings generated by the baseball exchange.
In the meantime, however, both sides are basking in the afterglow of the globally televised exhibition, even if some members of the American contingent were uneasy with the high-profile presence of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro at the game.
"I thought it went really well," said Tony Bernazard, who represented the Major League Baseball Players Association in the negotiations that led up to the game. He indicated that the players union is open to making it an annual event.
The game was attended by representatives of most of the major-league clubs, including a Florida Marlins franchise that took a very public stand against the overture. Many teams sent talent scouts to take advantage of the rare opportunity to see the top Cuban players compete against major-league talent -- even though the Cuban stars may never get the chance to sign with a major-league club.
"To come down here and experience it -- just to get to see and understand the mystique of Cuba -- it was worth it," said Montreal Expos general manager Jim Beattie. "Having done it once, the next time you won't feel so unsure."
Of course, even the game scheduled in Baltimore faces political obstacles. The Cubans have committed to play the second game of the home-and-home exhibition series, but they are concerned that more players will defect -- a possibility that might have increased with the solid showing of the Cubans Sunday.
Despite the suspense surrounding Sunday's 3-2, 11-inning Orioles win, a scout who attended the exhibition insisted, "Not for one second could you visualize the Cubans winning that game. Sure, they could have won, but the overall level of talent is not comparable to the Orioles or just about any other major-league team, for that matter."
Citing the amateurs' advanced age and several recent defections, Orioles general manager Frank Wren perceived a talent drain from the Cuban National Team that swept to the gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. However, Cuban officials dismissed the description of a "national team." Sunday's team was put together only 15 days before the game and lacked several top players still involved in the National Series between Havana and Santiago.
Asked whether he saw any players he could immediately project onto a major-league roster, Wren said, "More than one."
Wren wouldn't name names. But a consensus among those who watched the exhibition suggested that pitchers Jose Contreras and Pedro Lazo could make the transition. Contreras pitched eight shutout innings before Lazo suffered the loss.
"Talent isn't the question," said Boston Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette. "Them getting here is the question."
"You evaluate them individually rather than collectively," said Tampa Bay Devil Rays GM Chuck Lamar. "It's really not fair to compare them to a major-league team, but they definitely possess specific players you can project [onto major-league rosters]."
Politics remain the obvious hurdle. Said one club official familiar with Latin American baseball, "Living conditions aren't radically different in Cuba than in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica or rural Mexico. What is different is the political relationship, and that's everything."
There were no anti-Castro demonstrators at Fort Lauderdale Stadium when the Orioles faced the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday. The public response to the trip remained largely positive, even though Castro's presence created a political dynamic that Major League Baseball might have preferred to avoid.
Though baseball commissioner Bud Selig seemed mildly uncomfortable with the political implications, Orioles owner Peter Angelos seemed to welcome the opportunity to chip away at the long-standing political barrier between the two countries.
"This kind of dialogue is certainly better than keeping the door locked and Cuba isolated," Angelos said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 3/30/99