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Orioles' trip to Cuba will play in history

Major leagues have not visited Fidel Castro's island in 40 years.

By Compiled from staff, wire reports

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 1999


Major-league baseball is returning to Cuba for the first time in 40 years. In a deal completed Sunday, the Baltimore Orioles will play the Cuban national team on March 28 in Havana.

"If this produces the kind of human results that we're all hoping it does, this could be something really big," commissioner Bud Selig said during a visit to Legends Field in Tampa. "I'm very proud of the role we will play in doing something constructive -- that transcends baseball."

The Cuban team will play a return exhibition game at Camden Yards. The second game will be played either just before Baltimore starts the regular season April 5 or on an off day during the season.

The agreement came after two months of negotiations among the State Department, the Cuban government, the commissioner's office, the Orioles and the players association.

Cuban refugees and several congressmen oppose the games and have criticized baseball and the Orioles for dealing with Cuban President Fidel Castro. About 70 people protested Sunday at the Orioles' preseason game against the Marlins in Fort Lauderdale.

"Going to Cuba under the current conditions there is a sign of insensitivity and lack of respect for human rights there," said Huber Matos, a Cuban native who spent 20 years in prison on the island for opposing Castro's Communist government. "It's like taking part in the abuses."

Selig said he understands "people have all kinds of different human and political views."

"I'm very sensitive to that. ... But I think this is a very valuable part of the sports cultural exchange," he said. "We'll take care of the baseball politics and let the governments take care of the other issues."

The games were planned after the Clinton administration decided in January to ease the four-decade-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

Major-league teams used to visit Cuba regularly, but the last were the Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers, who played exhibition games there in March 1959, about 21/2 months after Castro's revolution ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista on New Year's Day.

Selig, who plans to attend the game in Havana, said the major leagues might schedule more events in Cuba. "There are other clubs that want to do this, too."

Several Cubans have defected in recent years and play for major-league teams, notably Devil Rays pitcher Rolando Arrojo; Florida pitcher Livan Hernandez, the 1997 World Series MVP; and his half-brother, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, who starred for the Yankees in last year's post-season.

Castro, a former baseball player, has referred to defectors as traitors, and Cuban officials have accused U.S. teams of trying to bribe Cuban players into abandoning their country. U.S. agents have helped Cuban players defect.

Several hours after the announcement, news of the game had still not reached baseball-crazy Cubans in the capital of Havana.

"That's great! Finally, we can test the strength of our players," Jose Angel Montes, a 25-year-old computer technician, said when informed of the agreement.

Whereas salaries in Cuba average $10 a month, Livan Hernandez got a four-year contract from the Marlins worth $4.495-million, and Orlando got a $6.6-million, four-year deal from the Yankees. The Devil Rays gave Arrojo a $7-million signing bonus. Proceeds from the two games -- a sticking point in the negotiations -- will be used mainly to support baseball and other sports activities in the countries, Major League Baseball said. The Clinton administration did not want profits to go to Castro's government.

A delegation from Major League Baseball, the players association and the Orioles probably will go to Havana this week to work out logistics and the date of the second game.
-- Staff writer Mike Readling contributed to this report.

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