It had been 20 years since a Major League Baseball (MLB) and a Cuban team faced off on the ball field, for the second time after the triumph of the Revolution, January 1, 1959.
March 28, 1999, the Baltimore Orioles faced the Cuban national team in Havana’s Latinoamericano Stadium, and on May 3, the two met under the lights of Oriole Park in Camden Yards.
It was a sports moment of fine art, with the Orioles’ tight plays; a veritable pitching concert by the right-hander from Pinar del Río, José Ariel Contreras, in the first game; and in the second, the grand performance of Santiago’s Norge Luis Vera, facing batters from the state of Maryland’s largest city.
The event, defined by Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro as historic, required that a number of obstacles be overcome, among them the question of how Cuba could receive the income generated, with the blockade in full force 20 years ago, as it is today.
Nine innings weren’t enough for the first game. The visitors scored in the second, with the only homerun of the day, off the bat of catcher Charles Johnson, making José Ibar jump off the pitcher’s mound. Hits by Guantánamo’s Roberquis Videaux and Omar Linares produced a tie in the eighth inning. In the tenth, Alfonso Urquiola’s team had two runners on base, but Mike Fetters didn’t let them get home. Contreras, who allowed only two hits, with ten strike-outs, handed the ball to Pedro Luis Lazo, to close the game. He allowed two singles, one by Harold Baines to send in the winning run, for the Orioles’ 3-2 victory.
Twenty-three men stepped up to bat (10 from the Orioles) but Camaguey’s Luis Ulacia was the best of all, with three hits in four at-bats. Fetters was the winner; Lazo took the loss; and Jesse Orozco saved the game with the last three outs.
The National Series play-off was underway at the time, so no players from Santiago de Cuba or Havana were on the roster. The country’s most important sports event was not affected or eclipsed by the Major League’s presence. Another aspect of the challenge was that the games were played with wooden bats, even though Cuban players had been using aluminum for 20 years, and had only three weeks to adapt.
Before hitting the filed in Baltimore, the Cuban team was obliged to win a more difficult game. Since the play-offs were over by the time of the second game in Baltimore, players from Havana and Santiago were included on the roster, and everyone was ready to depart, but… the original agreement indicated that the teams would travel on their own planes. What happened? The three-year-old Helms-Burton Act, protected by a President from the Democratic Party, came onto the scene, raising the possibility that airplanes traveling to or from Cuba could be confiscated. Given the Orioles management’s efforts to promote and defend the games, Cuba hired a Canadian airline to transport the team, which Baltimore would pay for, using Cuba’s share of the income generated.
Another wild pitch put the second game at risk: about a third of the Cuban team had not received visas. Fidel, upon receiving the team at the University of Havana on May 4, recalled that he had met with the group after the May Day march, and said, “I’m here to say goodbye to a team that I don’t know will travel or not.”
He explained what was happening and stated, “Either all go, or no one.” The group, all the team members and staff, on the university’s Grand Stairway, erupted with cheers and applause, filling the air with patriotic pride.
Rain, hail, and a disruption, by those who hate to see their own homeland succeed, delayed the game 55 minutes. The sky cleared and the umpire from Villa Clara, César Valdés, gave the unruly what they deserved. Contreras opened for Cuba, but left the mound after giving up three walks in the first two innings. Our batters responded with four runs in the second, two in the third, one in the seventh, and five in the ninth, while Norge L. Vera didn’t allow a hit in six and a third innings, until Delino DesShields hit a homerun. Urquiola sent in Ormari Romero to get the last two outs, and seal the 12-6 victory.
Danel Castro made four hits in five at-bats, scored four runs and hit in two; while Andy Morales (5-3, home run, three RBIs and one scored); Omar Linares (4-4, batted in one run and scored himself on another occasion), and Ariel Pestano (5-3 and one run) also shined. Vera got the win and Scott Kamieniecki the loss. Baltimore fans cheered the impressive quality of Cuban baseball.
Would Cuban players not like to play in the big leagues, Luis Ulacia was asked during a press conference. “Of course, what we do not understand is why we must risk our lives to do so, renounce our country, our families. I am very clear that this is unfair.”
Donald Trump, who recently overruled the historic agreement reached by the MLB and the Cuban Federation on December 19, received the same response.
That May 4, Fidel stated: “We can never forget our former players. We cannot give them the millions offered by (MLB) scouts, but we can give them all the recognition in the world, all the honors they deserve, and meet all the material needs they have. What they need; that does not mean ambitions of wealth, no; but they will always be remembered, and insofar as the country improves its economic situation, we will improve the lives of those athletes who did so much for their country, who could not be bought for any amount of money.”On April 22, this year, during the Institute of Sports, Physical Education, and Recreation annual review, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel again demonstrated the continuity his government represents: “…We must improve the attention they (athletes) receive, given what they represent, for their example and because they are with us in the daily battle. It is not only about the material, but many times, also the affective and sentimental value.”Fidel bid the players farewell this way: “What better place to honor our heroic athletes than this university stairway, where so many pages have been written in the history of our country; here next to the Alma Mater, in the university of Mella and José Antonio Echeverría, in this university of so many heroic combatants. What more symbolic place than this for you to come and bring your flag and place it here. If those who must make a decision allow me, I propose that this flag remain on this university hill.” And that victorious standard is there.