After historic trip in 1999, Orioles should be first MLB team to play again in Cuba

If the new relationship between the United States and Cuba allows for an ongoing relationship between Major League Baseball and the baseball-crazy island nation, the Orioles should be the team that breaks the ice.

They earned it.


The news Monday that the club is considering another Cuban goodwill trip certainly brings back vivid memories of the Orioles' visit to Havana in 1999. The event caused much consternation in the Cuban exile community and made principal owner Peter G. Angelos the target of criticism long after the team of Cuban All-Stars traveled to Baltimore and defeated the Orioles several weeks later.

There had not been a visit from an American professional team in nearly 40 years and the long-standing U.S. economic and tourist embargo remained largely in force. The Orioles and MLB received permission from President Bill Clinton's State Department to negotiate a home-and-home series and paid to upgrade Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano for Cuba's half of the occasion.


Of course, the trip was controversial. How could it not be?

It spawned protests in the Miami area and speculation that Angelos was somehow trying to corner the market on Cuban baseball talent in advance of any political sea change in the tiny communist country.

Maybe there was some hope of expanding awareness of the Orioles organization at a time when the promising players who defected from Cuba tended to land elsewhere, but that wasn't the primary motivation for going there.

"I read somewhere that I wanted to do this because I was interested in their ballplayers," Angelos told The Baltimore Sun at the time. "I don't remember ever being motivated by that objective. I don't remember exactly when was the first time I thought about this, but it was at the time when it was becoming apparent that the Soviet Union no longer was a threat to the Western Hemisphere. It seemed to me that it made sense to have better relations [with Cuba].

"This is just an interested citizen. Why can't we do something together to improve the relations between our people? We have so much in common."

Angelos led a delegation of baseball officials to Havana in January 1999 to work out the details and returned for Cuba's half of the two-game series in late March. He and baseball commissioner Bud Selig would garner another round of criticism for watching the game alongside Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and Angelos did not shy away from it.

"He's the principal political person in his government," Angelos said after the game. "If he invites you to sit with him at the ballgame, good manners would dictate that you accept."

The Orioles also caught some heat the year after the Cuban overture for their reluctance to sign Cuban defectors, a policy that the club claimed was intended to discourage Cuban ballplayers from putting their lives at risk trying to escape to the United States.

There was some irony there, considering the original suspicion about the team's supposed desire to become the preferred destination for Cuban baseball talent, especially when North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms asked Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate the Orioles for alleged hiring discrimination against Cuban defectors.

Angelos was undeterred and apparently remains so. He told the Associated Press in 2009 that he was hoping to stage another goodwill trip to Cuba, and now there is talk of a possible set of exhibition games there.

With the recent decision by President Barack Obama's administration to relax many aspects of the trade embargo, that kind of thing now seems to be a real possibility, though there are still enough political and logistical obstacles to make it seem unlikely to happen this spring.

Obviously, Angelos thought another round of baseball diplomacy would happen a lot sooner than this, based on his comments after the historic game 1999 game in Havana.


"It was one great day in the effort to bring the Cuban and American people together," he said. "It's one small step, but I think other teams will follow. I think what the Orioles have begun will go on and on.

"We've got some very substantial political problems to be resolved, but we are working together to do some positive things."


Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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