Throwback Thursday: How one Orioles minor league affiliate can trace its origins to Cuba

On Wednesday, in my daily quest for content, I moseyed on over to the Reddit r/baseball subreddit. One of the top photos was of Fidel Castro at the plate. Interesting.

One of the comments below claimed that the Norfolk Tides, the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate, at one time were the Havana Sugar Kings. Also interesting.


If only the path from Cuba to Virginia were so clear. Before they were the Havana Sugar Kings, they were the Havana Cubans, playing out of the Florida International League as a Washington Senators affiliate from 1946-54. Before the next season, according to the New York Times, Cuban entrepreneur Bobby Maduro bought the team, and the Sugar Kings debuted in the International League as the Cincinnati Reds' Triple-A affiliate.

The team had good players  Leo Cárdenas, Luis Arroyo, Cookie Rojas, and even three-time Orioles All-Star and Cy Young Award winner Mike Cuellar were among the Sugar Kings who went on to major league stardom  and fans had a good time. "Sugar Kings games grew famous for exotic pregame entertainment that included beauty pageants, fashion shows and clowns," the Times wrote, "and always live music."

Revolution, of course, got in the way. On Jan. 1, 1959, having been told the United States no longer could support his government and having lost the Battle of Santa Clara to revolutionaries under the command of Che Guevara, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista fled the country.


Castro, a baseball fan and pitcher at the University of Havana, took power in the country, and "had a special box constructed for himself at Gran Stadium just behind the home team's first base dugout, and his soldiers were often seen patrolling the grounds armed with sub-machine guns," according to

On July 25, 1959, a day before the anniversary of the 26th of July Movement a commemoration of the 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks in the city of Santiago de Cuba by exiled revolutionaries like Castro and Guevara the Sugar Kings faced the Rochester Red Wings in a game that began at 9 p.m. The game dragged late into the night. At midnight, "a Cuban military and civilian celebration exploded into lights, flags, music, and gunfire both inside and outside of the park."

Stray bullets struck Frank Verdi, the Red Wings third base coach, and Cárdenas, a Sugar Kings shortstop, though neither was seriously injured. The game was called, and Rochester flew back stateside.

But still the Sugar Kings' season went on. They swept the second-place Columbus Jets in the International League semifinals. Then they beat the fourth-place Richmond Virginians for the Governors' Cup. In the Junior World Series, also known as the Little World Series, the American Association champion Minneapolis Millers, featuring manager Gene Mauch and future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, took a 2-0 lead into the eighth inning of the decisive Game 7. The Sugar Kings rallied to tie the game, and with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, according to author Stew Thornley, Daniel Morejon lined the first pitch he saw to center field. Raul Sanchez beat the throw home for the winning run.

As Castro's Cuba changed, so, too, did the Sugar Kings' future in the country. In June 1960, Castro nationalized an estimated $850 million worth of U.S. property and businesses. The next month, during a July 13 road trip to Miami, the International League relocated the franchise to Jersey City, N.J. The Jerseys fell short of a playoff berth, then played their last season in Jersey City before diminished home crowds.

After folding, the franchise was bought by the Cleveland Indians and moved to Jacksonville, Fla. After two years as the Indians' Triple-A affiliate and two more as the St. Louis Cardinals', the Jacksonville Suns began a 38-year-long association with the New York Mets.

In 1969, the Mets moved the Suns from Jacksonville to Portsmouth, Va. The Tidewater Tides became the Norfolk Tides in 1993, and in 2006, the Norfolk Tides began their affiliation with the Orioles.

Which, of course, presents its own historical oddities: In recent years, the Orioles have signed prospects such as Dariel Alvarez and Henry Urrutia, whose defection from Cuba has led them to an organization with a minor league team once based in their home country.