Dan's Dugout: Cuba Game a Home Run for History • Latino Sports

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Dan’s Dugout: Cuba Game a Home Run for History

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Watching the exhibition game today between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuban national team was like witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall.

More than just a game, the event brought the President of the United States, the Commissioner of Baseball, and a delegation of current and future Hall of Famers.

Derek Jeter was among the celebrities who came to Cuba with MLB

Derek Jeter was among the celebrities who came to Cuba with MLB

While Joe Torre, Dave Winfield, and Derek Jeter watched, members of the Rays reached through the netting behind home plate to shake hands with President Obama, a rabid White Sox fan who put aside his partisan loyalties for the day.

Obama and his family sat with Cuban president Raul Castro, who looked great for an 84-year-old dictator whose controversial communist regime is one of the last on the planet.

The widow of Jackie Robinson, whose Brooklyn Dodgers trained in Havana in 1947, was nearby, along with her daughter Sharon. So was Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, who might want to cherish the moment while worrying about the approaching expiration of the Basic Agreement with the Major League Players Association.

Oh yes, 6’8″ union boss Tony Clark was there too — towering above everybody not named Dave

Union chief Tony Clark (left) with Hall of Famer Dave Winfield

Union chief Tony Clark (left) with Hall of Famer Dave Winfield

Winfield.

Luis Tiant, though overlooked for Cooperstown thus far, looked happy to be throwing out the first pitch. And why not? He played in Cuba as a youth before finding stardom in the States with the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox.

Tiant was just one of many Cubans who have starred in the big leagues. The list numbers nearly 200, from Minnie Minoso, Camilo Pascual, and Tony Oliva to active players Jose Abreu (White Sox), Yasiel Puig (Dodgers), and Adonis Garcia (Braves). There’s even a Havana-born manager in the majors: Fredi Gonzalez of the Atlanta Braves.

Many major-leaguers came from Cuba

Many major-leaguers came from Cuba

The game marked a high point in the reopening world of Cuban-American relations.

After more than half-a-century of diplomatic freeze, the countries have exchanged ambassadors, reopened airline routes, and made it possible for Americans to include Cuba in both their travel and business plans.

Obama’s foreign policy may have been a bunch of swings and misses elsewhere but not this time. Acting in concert with the change he promised as a candidate in 2008, he has reached out to rogue nations to see if diplomacy could open doors. The jury is still out on Iran but the verdict in Cuba looks promising, despite the political prisoners the island nation still holds.

At least Cuban players no longer have to board rickety rafts to brave 90 miles of ocean to the U.S. mainland. Now they can come on their own — and return whenever they want to visit the families defectors once left behind.

In fact, Tampa Bay leadoff man Dayron Varona hadn’t seen his family in three years before returning to his homeland with the Rays.

He didn’t get much support from the fans, all of whom seemed to be rooting for the Cuban National Team, but his Tampa Bay teammates stepped out of the dugout to applaud when he was introduced.

The crowd, estimated at more than 50,000, might have been the largest ever to see a single Rays

Fidel Castro was still in power when the Orioles came to Cuba in 1999

Fidel Castro was still in power when the Orioles came to Cuba in 1999

game.

The game was the first by an American team since the Baltimore Orioles visited Cuba during spring training on March 28, 1999. The locals beat the visiting Americans, 12-6.

About Dan Schlossberg

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has produced 35 baseball books, including autobiographies of Ron Blomberg, Al Clark, and Milo Hamilton. Also a broadcaster, he is the host and executive producer of Braves Banter and Travel Itch Radio and a contributor to Sirius XM.

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