The symbolism was striking: Exactly one year after President Obama announced the normalization of relations with Cuba, the two countries’ flags flew side by side atop the scoreboard at Estadio Victoria de Giron.
A scoreboard featuring a massive photograph of Fidel Castro.
Castro’s youngest son, Antonio, has a passion for baseball rather than the family business of politics. But he’s well aware — more than ever after these last three days — of how baseball could be a catalyst to help repair five decades of bitterness and distrust between the U.S. and Cuban governments.
“We’re conscious of what baseball means. What we’ve experienced today, and what we’ve experienced these last couple of days, is very exciting,” Castro said Thursday in a rare interview with American reporters.
“Those of us who work for baseball always have the fans on our minds,” Castro added. “This is just the beginning. I hope to one day be able to say, ‘Well done.’ ”
Castro chose his words carefully, conscious of not contradicting the official position of the Cuban government, which is now led by his uncle, Raul. But his actions this week spoke louder than any statement he could have made.
As vice president of the Cuban baseball federation, Antonio Castro was instrumental in arranging Major League Baseball’s goodwill tour. But he did more than push through paperwork, actively and enthusiastically participating every step of the way.
He was at both of the kids’ clinics MLB put on, mingling with baseball officials and players. He was often seen chatting with Dan Halem, baseball’s chief labor officer. He and Joe Torre, now MLB’s chief baseball officer, got to be fast friends, bonding over a mutual acquaintance and their love for the game.
But perhaps most telling was Castro’s interactions with the four Cuban-born players on the tour, particularly recent defectors Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu.
It would have been unthinkable for either Puig or Abreu to return to their homeland even a few months ago, considered by the Cuban government to be traitors. Yet Castro hailed them as the returning heroes they are to the Cuban people.
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“Don’t separate Cuban players,” Castro said when asked about the prospects of fielding a “unified” Cuban team at the next World Baseball Classic.
“They’re all Cubans.”
And he treated them as such.
When Puig and Abreu stood next to each other after Thursday’s clinic, waiting to do a TV interview, Castro took photos of them. As they signed autographs, Castro ran items back and forth to fans.
“We’re experiencing an era with a new relationship with Major League Baseball and the Players Association, one where we want the baseball players to play baseball,” Castro said. “And where they live in a normal world and they have the same rights.
“… We’re working on a new relationship, one based on respect, where baseball is the language spoken.”
Asked if he thought Puig and Abreu will be able to return home again soon, Castro didn’t say yes.
But he didn’t say no, either.
“We’re working with Major League Baseball,” Castro said. “Like I’ve repeated several times, this is all part of the new relationship. Let’s see what happens in the future.
“We’re not Nostradamus.”
Both MLB and the Cuban federation hope this tour will lead to future league events here. Halem said Tuesday he remains “cautiously optimistic” of games here during spring training, with the Tampa Bay Rays already chosen as the team to participate.
And given the jubilation surrounding this tour, it’s hard not to imagine it becoming a regular event.
The bigger issues involving the free movement of Cuban players — both to the major leagues and between the two countries — will take longer to resolve, and are dependent on further cooperation between the two governments.
Already, relations are improving at a rapid pace. Mail service recently resumed, and an agreement allowing U.S. airlines to operate regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba was announced Thursday – while the clinic was going on, in fact.
To credit baseball for this progress is too simplistic. But when icy silence is all the countries have shared for half a century, common ground has to be found somewhere.
“Through baseball, we’re uniting countries,” Castro said. “We’ll work so that one day we can say this is just one of many anniversaries. We don’t work to celebrate anniversaries. We work to live in a normal world, where we can all live in peace through the game of baseball.”
For anyone who doubts whether that can happen, just check out the scoreboard.
Nancy Armour, CubaSí
December 18, 2015