LITTLE FALLS – In a tangible sign of a thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba, members of the island nation’s national baseball team assembled at the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center on Monday.
Officially, they were there to promote a three-game series that the Cubans will open on Tuesday night against the minor league New Jersey Jackals. But the players also spent time admiring the artifacts and exhibits in the museum, and the director of the Cuban Baseball Federation marveled at the warm reception that the team has received on a swing through the northeastern United States and Canada.
The director, Heriberto Suarez, said through an interpreter that he was grateful to have been received in the United States “with open arms,” and that he has enjoyed competing against other teams in the independent Can-Am league, including the Sussex County Miners, the Rockland Boulders and three teams in Canada. The Jackals series marks the end of the team’s North American trip.
Suarez said that baseball “is something that brings us together,” and that the Cuban team had come to the United States to “unite different countries and different people.”
The games are taking place at a momentous time for the United States and Cuba, which recently re-established diplomatic relations nearly 55 years after the Eisenhower administration broke them off in the wake of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. President Obama has attempted to bridge the divide between the two nations, reopening the U.S. Embassy in Havana last year, removing Cuba from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and urging Congress to lift the trade embargo.
Obama earlier this year became the first U.S. president to set foot on Cuban soil in 88 years. While in Havana, Obama watched the Tampa Bay Rays defeat the Cuban national team 4-1.
However, in a sign of lingering Cold War-era tensions between the two countries, one member of the Cuban squad, Lazaro Ramirez, a 24-year-old outfielder, defected while several players were on a shopping trip after the team wrapped up its series with the Sussex County Miners on June 23 — a development that was confirmed by The New York Daily News.
The Cuban team is mainly composed of professional players from the nation’s baseball system. The Cubans have won three Olympic gold medals since 1992 and once again will participate in the World Baseball Classic, a semi-regular worldwide baseball tournament, next spring. Yoenis Cespedes of the Mets, Aroldis Chapman of the Yankees and Alexei Ramirez and José Abreu, both of the Chicago White Sox, are among the current Major Leaguers who have played for the national team.
The games that the team is playing here mark the first time that a Cuban squad has played a regular-season professional baseball game in the United States since 1960. (The games count in the Can-Am league standings.) They also pick up on a tradition of international baseball between the two countries. From 1891 to 1958, American teams traveled semi-regularly to Cuba to compete in the “American Series.” The Brooklyn Dodgers also held spring training in Havana in 1941, 1942 and 1947.
On Monday, the remaining members of the Cuban team sat behind a group of youth softball players inside the theater at the Yogi Berra museum during a press availability. Greg Lockard, the Jackals’ president, said that having them team play at Yogi Berra Stadium is a “very unique opportunity.”
“This is a huge international event for them, for us, and the Can-American League,” he said.
Dave Kaplan, director of the Yogi Berra museum, shared his enthusiasm.
“I wish Yogi Berra was here because he had fond memories of Cuba,” Kaplan told the Cuban players. “We are so happy that you are here to play in the stadium named after him.”
Andrew Wyrich, NorthJersey.com
June 27, 2016