Americans would like to believe President Obama opened lines of communication with Cuba last month during his visit to the communist country. Obama showed up armed with Derek Jeter and a hand extended, a gesture showing the United States and Cuba at least shared a love for baseball.
For generations, sports have been used as a vehicle for diplomacy, a bridge connecting countries experiencing political divide. Save boycotts sprinkled throughout history, the Olympics have encouraged enemy lands to put down their weapons, if only for a few weeks every two years, in the name of competition.
The U.S.-Cuba dispute goes back some 60 years, before the Kennedy Administration and before 85 percent of the current U.S. population was born. In short, it began as a fight over money and oil, leading to a U.S. embargo on Cuba, and revolutionary dictator Fidel Castro embracing communism and the Soviet Union.
Kids, ask your grandparents.
Pardon me for glossing over deep, complex issues in the U.S.-Cuba relationship and the plight of exiled Cubans who fled the country. The point is that the bitterness between the U.S. and Cuba had little to do with American and Cuban citizens and absolutely nothing to do with baseball.
While Cubans listened to Castro on state radio, fortunate Americans soothed their ears with the likes of Vin Scully and Harry Caray. For six decades, the United States has gone about its business and watched baseball evolve into a multibillion-dollar industry while Cuba ruled its people without the game’s riches.
The game did not.
One source of common ground between the two countries, perhaps the only source, has been the baseball diamond. Castro, like many U.S. presidents during his regime, was a baseball fan. The relationship between governments is a long way from mended, but recent signs suggest improvement with baseball in the backdrop.
Last month, there was hope a series between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team could gather thousands of people from both countries in the same room on some level. Obama was the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years and used the grand old game to promote peace.
Castro condemned his visit, but that’s what Castro does. He’s no longer in power but maintains an influential voice. He’s also 89 years old. Perhaps someday we’ll look back and point to March 2016 as the time in which baseball opened political doors, if even just a crack, for the United States and Cuba.
It was, if nothing else, a start.
Such is the power of sports, in this case baseball. I wouldn’t begin to argue baseball would solve philosophical and political differences between opposing governments. But maybe conversations in March will eventually break the ice in a chilly relationship and narrow the gap separating their leaders.
One springboard would be Cuba allowing its best players to legally play baseball in the United States. In the coming years, they could travel freely between the two countries, maintain relationships with their families and invest money, in some cases big money, to improve living conditions back home.
The obvious obstacle is making sure the Cuban government didn’t take the millions of U.S. dollars its players pocketed for its own purposes. There’s talk of the Major League Baseball paying a player-transfer fee that would be used to improve playing conditions and development programs in Cuba.
Nothing can begin unless the United States loosens or eliminates a 60-year-old embargo that appears outdated and ineffective. This is not to suggest the United States should cave to Cuba’s needs. I’m merely saying baseball could be used to spark progress beyond the playing fields.
No matter, there must be a way for Cuban players to earn a substantial living in the United States without surrendering Cuban citizenship or relinquishing their rights to play for their national team. Numerous players have shown up on U.S. soil and told tales about perilous voyages after escaping government guns.
The pursuit of baseball shouldn’t come down to life or death. Last season, 27 Cuban players appeared in the big leagues, including stars such as Yeonis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Joe Abreau, Jose Fernandez and Aroldis Chapman. Scouts say more Cuban prospects await import to the U.S. and the big leagues.
Baseball doesn’t have the grip over our country that it had when the U.S.-Cuba relationship fell apart. Young boys playing stickball in New York City streets long ago disappeared. Many fans who kept up with teams in the 1950s only by pinning their ears to radios have died of old age.
According to SportsMediaWatch.com, the Major League All-Star Game was the only baseball event among the Top 50 most-watched broadcasts in 2015. Football is king. Soccer, golf and lacrosse have taken hold. Fewer minorities play baseball in the United States, but it remains the No. 1 sport in Cuba.
Indeed, much has changed over the past six decades. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The United States found diplomacy with other communist regimes, such as China and Vietnam. Here’s hoping two countries can come together, find diplomacy through baseball and see where it takes them.