Orioles manager Ray Miller, left, meets with Cuban president Fidel Castro before the game in Havana, Cuba.
Orioles manager Ray Miller, left, meets with Cuban president Fidel Castro before the game in Havana, Cuba. (Nanine Hartzenbusch, Baltimore Sun)

When the Orioles traveled to Havana in 1999 to play a goodwill game against a team of Cuban all-stars, O's owner Peter Angelos said he hoped that some well-intentioned sports diplomacy would help improve relations between the United States and one of its Cold War enemies.

It didn't quite work out that way, since it would be another 15 years before the two countries moved to normalize their political relationship, but the trip probably did have the effect of making Americans outside of South Florida take a closer look at the long-standing policy of economically isolating Cuba to affect a change in the country's repressive regime.

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Fidel Castro died on Friday at the age of 90, eight years after ceding power to his younger brother Raul. Though there has been some loosening of the countries tightly controlled economy, Cuba's communist government remains firmly in place.

Clearly, the embargo did not have the desired effect and Angelos had the political clout to get State Department approval to not only go to Havana, but also to allow Major League Baseball to partially renovate Latin American Stadium to make it an acceptable site for the Cuba half of the two-game home-and-home series.

It was a controversial trip made even moreso by the fact that the Orioles held spring training in Fort Lauderdale, just an easy drive for anti-Castro demonstrators to show their disapproval.

It was also an educational trip for those of us lucky enough to be included. The ability to walk the streets of Havana and interact with the Cuban people -- at the very least -- broadened our understanding of a sad and complicated situation.

The event itself was almost surreal, with the party-loyalist-only sellout crowd going nuts when Fidel Castro marched across the field to shake hands with the Orioles players. Who among us ever thought we would see anything like that.

Angelos and baseball commissioner Bud Selig would be criticized for sitting next to Castro during the game, but Angelos offered no apology for what was a diplomatic necessity.

The second game in Baltimore was played under the shadow of possible Cuban defections and there were a couple of incidents, but Angelos told me last spring -- as the Tampa Bay Rays prepared to visit Cuba -- that he considered the venture a big success.

"It was a truly satisfying experience," Angelos said. "because these were people who were just like our people. They were people who loved baseball and there was nothing they wouldn't do for us while we were there."

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