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José Iglesias traded a baseball for an Orioles cap in Cuba 21 years ago. Now, he’s their shortstop. | COMMENTARY

José Iglesias was 9 years-old when the Orioles visited Cuba to play baseball. He never thought he would one day play for them.

In the spring of 1999, 9-year-old José Iglesias watched from the stands as the Baltimore Orioles held a public workout in his hometown of San Jose de Las Lajas in preparation for their historic goodwill game against a team of Cuban All-Stars.

There had not been a visit from a major league team to Cuba in nearly 40 years, so the game at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana created quite a buzz. Iglesias noticed another kid wearing an Orioles hat and just had to have it.

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“It had the bird on it, a lot like this,” he said this week, holding up the cap the Orioles will wear during their exhibition schedule, which begins with a game at the new Atlanta Braves complex in North Port on Saturday. “I traded a baseball for it.”

Iglesias, who will likely be the starting shortstop when the Orioles open the regular season, never imagined that he would play at Camden Yards, which he first saw on a grainy television screen when those same Cuban All-Stars traveled to Baltimore and defeated the Orioles in the second game of the home-and-home series.

He was just a baseball-crazy kid in a baseball-crazy land way back then. He would grow into a terrific infielder and join his country’s junior national team, which afforded him the opportunity to slip away during a trip to Canada, make millions playing in the American major leagues, play in the All-Star Game in 2015 and — two years ago — become a naturalized American citizen.

Funny how things work out. The Orioles faced predictable criticism for the overture to the Fidel Castro regime, which required State Department approval to by-pass aspects of the long-standing trade embargo that had crippled the Cuban economy since the early 1960s. There also was widespread suspicion that the trip was an attempt by O’s owner Peter Angelos to corner the market on Cuban baseball talent as more and more players found their way out of the country to become professional players in the United States.

To that young kid in the stands at 3,000-seat Nelson Fernandez Stadium in San Jose, there was no international intrigue. It was just as Angelos had described it — a hands-across-the-water offer of friendship through a sport beloved in both countries.

The Cuban national team and the Orioles stand at attention as both countries' national anthems are played at the start of the historic game in Havana on March 28, 1999.
The Cuban national team and the Orioles stand at attention as both countries' national anthems are played at the start of the historic game in Havana on March 28, 1999.

Iglesias walked away with his first real baseball cap and it would make him look like an Orioles fan, but he said that he really didn’t imagine himself in the rest of the uniform.

“No, I never thought about that," he said. “I was too young, but it was obviously very cool to see a big league team practice and prepare and watch the way they do things, so now I’m here.”

When he signed his first pro contract, it was with the Boston Red Sox, and he made his major league debut with them in 2011. He would emerge as an elite defensive shortstop in parts of five seasons in Detroit and deliver his most productive offensive season with the Cincinnati Reds last year before the O’s signed him to a one-year, $3 million contract with a club option for 2021.

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Looking back, Iglesias said that the Orioles’ visit to his hometown did endear them to a lot of Cuban baseball fans.

“A lot of people started to follow the Orioles back then," he said. “Personally, it brings some memories, obviously, but I don’t think it was something I followed or that I became an Oriole because they went there or anything. But definitely, I think a lot of people from Cuba started following the Orioles and wanted to know about them because they went there.”

Orioles infielder José Iglesias, left, is greeted by teammate Pat Valaika during infield practice at the Ed Smith Stadium complex.
Orioles infielder José Iglesias, left, is greeted by teammate Pat Valaika during infield practice at the Ed Smith Stadium complex.(Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

The great influx of Cuban players over the next decade did not significantly affect the Orioles, partly because Angelos originally announced that the club would not sign Cuban defectors because he felt it encouraged them to take life-threatening risks to leave their country. The policy didn’t stick and they eventually signed reliever Danys Báez to a multi-year contract in 2006, but he had already played six years in the majors by then.

Iglesias is one of only two Cuban nationals in camp with the Orioles. The other is outfield prospect Yusniel Diaz, who was one of the five prospects acquired in 2018 from the Los Angeles Dodgers for Manny Machado.

The world has changed a lot since Iglesias watched in awe as the Orioles took infield and batting practice 21 years ago. He left his life behind and joined the baseball migration from Cuba to the United States, a path now smoother since an agreement was reached in 2018 to allow some Cuban stars to leave their country legally and sign professional contracts.

That goodwill visit at the end of the 20th century certainly had an impact on Iglesias, but he’s not sure it really altered the political dynamic or softened the still-strained relationship between his two countries.

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“I don’t know," he said. “I think as far as the sport, it was great for us. We were back there getting the opportunity to see big league players. It was a unique experience, and for the sport, it was absolutely great.”

Editor’s note: Sun sports columnist Peter Schmuck traveled to Cuba with Orioles managing partner Peter Angelos as part of the delegation that organized the goodwill trip in January of 1999 and was there when the O’s played the team of Cuban All-Stars on March 28 in Havana.

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