The Cuban national baseball team has arrived in North Jersey for a second consecutive summer in which international relations between the island country and the United States have dominated headlines.
The Cuban players – who faced the Sussex County Miners of the Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball independent minor league on Wednesday in the second of two games – are facing Can-Am League member the New Jersey Jackals in a four-game series from Thursday through Sunday.
Last June, in Cuba’s first professional baseball games in the United States since 1960, President Barack Obama had recently re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than a half-century of isolation.
Last week, President Donald Trump announced he would ban American tourism to Cuba while also prohibiting U.S. financial transactions with Cuban businesses that are controlled by the Communist military government.
But regardless, the Cuban baseball players will continue to play ball.
“Baseball can happen no matter what,” said Jackals owner Al Dorso, who also owns the Miners franchise. “The Cubans want to keep some channels open with us, and one part is baseball being a common interest. Sports heals some of the wounds.”
The Cubans won 11 of 20 games last summer in contests that counted in the Can-Am League standings, facing three Canadian teams while finishing 8-2 against the Jackals, the Miners, and the Pomona, New York-based Rockland Boulders.
Still, the visit proved complicated. A 24-year-old outfielder defected during a shopping trip after a Miners game in Augusta; security was heightened for the subsequent series against the Boulders; and the Cuban team manager briefly pulled his team off the field in protest of an umpire’s call before the call was reversed in Cuba’s favor.
The team even snubbed Enrique “El Duque” Hernandez – the former Yankees pitcher who escaped from Cuba by boat 20 years ago – after he threw out a ceremonial first pitch before a Boulders game.
“Honestly, I had thought that maybe because of the defection and other things that happened, they might not want to come back,” Dorso said. “But the reality is not only did they come, they want more outings in this country. They feel like it’s good for them to get the word out about Cuban baseball.”
The sport has been a significant part of the Cuban entertainment culture since the 1860s. According to historians, baseball – having been imported by visiting American sailors and Cubans who pursued higher education in the United States – was banned in Cuba in 1869 during the Cuban First War of Independence. That action made baseball a symbol of defiance for many residents at the time, and the love affair with the sport has never waned.
Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes – who defected in 2011 – and Yankees relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman – who arrived two years later – are among almost two dozen Cubans playing Major League Baseball. About 200 Cubans, including Hall of Fame Cincinnati Reds slugger Tony Perez, have played in the majors dating to 1871.
Dorso, in his first year of owning the Jackals, said the crowd at Skylands Stadium for the Miners’ games against Cuba was roughly one-third in favor of the Cuban team. That’s in spite of the fact that Sussex County has far fewer Cuban immigrants than other portions of North Jersey.
“Many of the fans are not for the Cuban government, but they are for Cuban ballplayers,” Dorso said.
John Brennan, NorthJersey.com
June 21, 2017