Orioles interested in playing exhibition game in Cuba

The Orioles, the only Major League Baseball team to play on Cuban soil since Fidel Castro's regime took over the island in 1959, are discussing the possibility of playing an exhibition game there in the near future.

The team is interested in playing an exhibition game in Cuba during spring training — the topic came up within the past month — but nothing is imminent, according to one industry source.


Despite recently-improved diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, scheduling a game for this spring would seem unlikely because MLB is still working to get an understanding of what the laws will be regarding Cuba. Planning a game for 2016 would seem to be more feasible.

"There's interest from the team," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "I don't know about the logistics yet."


In December, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. planned to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, the first step in ending a political standoff between the nations that has lasted five decades.

The Orioles played an exhibition game in Havana in 1999 as part of a home-and-home series against the Cuban All-Star team. A return trip would seem to be much easier now.

Last month, Obama relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba and through the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control, licenses for authorized travel to the island are being issued for the purposes of "public, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions and exhibitions."

Meanwhile, Major League Baseball has adopted a wait-and-see approach.

"Major League Baseball is closely monitoring the White House's announcement regarding Cuban-American relations," the league said in December. "While there are not sufficient details to make a realistic evaluation, we will continue to track this significant issue, and we will keep our clubs informed if this different direction may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba."

Orioles managing partner Peter G. Angelos was a driving force behind the Orioles trip to Cuba in 1999. Angelos lobbied three years for his team to have the opportunity to play in Cuba before he reached a compromise that would satisfy MLB, the players' union, the Cuban government and the U.S. State Department. Angelos' case was that despite their differences, the nations had a common passion for baseball that could help build a bridge of diplomacy between them.

The Orioles traveled to Havana to play an exhibition on March 28, 1999, marking the first time in 40 years that a major league team played a game in Cuba. The game, which the Orioles won, 3-2, in 11 innings, was attended by roughly 50,000 people at Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano. The Orioles hosted the Cuban All-Stars on May 3 at Camden Yards, a 12-6 Orioles loss, in a game that drew 47,940 plus a throng of anti-Castro protesters outside Oriole Park.

The exhibitions were intended to pave the way for more teams to visit Cuba and improve diplomatic relations, but that never occurred. Angelos and the Orioles had interest in returning to the island a decade later, but that effort never materialized.

Cuban baseball players seeking escape from the island often had to risk their lives, sometimes detouring to another country to establish residence before being able to be signed by a major league team. Many times, they were forced to leave their families behind and were subject to extortion from handlers.

Shortly after the Orioles' games against the Cuban All-Stars, the team reportedly established a policy prohibiting it from negotiating with Cuban defectors in respect to the diplomacy fostered between the Orioles and Castro. The Orioles held to that policy until November 2006, when they agreed to a three-year, $19 million contract with reliever Danys Baez, a former Cuban defector who had been a major league All-Star.

The Orioles now scout most Cuban players once they become available, but haven't signed the big-ticket Cuban free-agents. The largest signing bonus they have awarded was $800,000 to outfielder Dariel Alvarez in 2013.

Still, the Orioles have made significant strides in signing Cuban players under Duquette. After playing just 81 games in the minors, Cuban outfielder Henry Urrutia debuted for the Orioles as a 26-year-old rookie in 2013, playing 24 games that season. Alvarez is one of the organization's top position-player prospects. Both will be in big league camp this spring battling for a roster spot.


The Orioles also have outfielder Elier Leyva and right-hander Lazaro Leyva (no relation), both Cubans signed in the past year, in the lower levels of the minor league system.

Urrutia was 12 years old when the Orioles played in Cuba and remembers the excitement of seeing the Cuban All-Star team play a major league team competitively. "It was amazing," he said. "You cannot imagine how great it was for the Cuban people."

"I would love [it] if both teams could play. I would love to be with the team to [able] to go to my country to play and hope this is an opportunity to continue improving relations between the two countries."

Recent Cuban players such as Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, Boston Red Sox outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and reigning American League Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox became major league stars quickly after fleeing Cuba.

The Red Sox signed Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo to a seven-year, $72.5 million deal in August and the Arizona Diamondbacks inked Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas to a six-year, $68.5 million deal in December. Nineteen-year-old Cuban shortstop Yoan Moncada, who was declared a free agent last week, could receive a signing bonus in the $30 million range.

It's unclear how a more open relationship with the U.S. and Cuba will affect future Cuban baseball players. But there's no secret that playing a game in Cuba would give the Orioles organization valuable exposure on the island.

"It would be just like a big billboard in front of them," said Orioles executive director of international recruiting Fred Ferreira. "It would help that for sure, whether it's there or in Baltimore."

ESPN first reported that the Orioles and Boston Red Sox have interest in playing exhibition games in Cuba.

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