The Baltimore Orioles Play In Havana

After posting My Cuban Baseball Experience, many of our readers contacted me to share their own Cuban baseball experiences.  A few of them brought up an historic game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban All-Stars that was played in Havana 10 years ago.  I have a very vague recollection of this taking place so I thought I would look into it further – and heard an interesting story on former Expo Delino DeShields, who was with Baltimore at the time.

Fidel Castro greets Baltimore owner Peter Angelos

 On March 28th, 1999 the Baltimore Orioles travelled to Havana, Cuba to play the Cuban All-Stars in an exhibition game at Estadio Latinoamericano.  It was the first time in 40 years that a Major League team set foot on Cuban soil.  The last game played by an MLB team in Cuba was in Havana was on March 21, 1959 between the Cincinnati Reds and Sandy Koufax’s Los Angeles Dodgers.  That game was played months after Castro’s revolution ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Baltimore Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos led a delegation to Cuba in early 1999 to negotiate the logistics and particulars of putting together the historial exhibition home at home series.  One of the snags was that Estadio Latinoamericano was in disrepair and needed to be refurbished at MLB’s expense.  This required governmental permission to sidestep the economic embargo’s all-encompassing shadow.  Fortunately for all sides involved, Peter Angelos was a top donator to then-President Bill Clinton’s campaign.  Therefore he was able to slice through the political red tape a little bit easier. Quite a remarkable achievement when you consider that the US officially recognizes Cuba as “a totalitarian police state which relies on repressive methods to maintain control. These methods, including intense physical and electronic surveillance of Cubans, are also extended to foreign travelers.”

Angelos and Bud Selig spoke of a cultural exchange and improving relations with Cuba (which had soured under previous republican administrations) when they planned and executed this series.  However there was also speculation that the purpose of Angelos’ trip to Cuba was to favourably position the Orioles should a political shift in Cuba take place, thus making an exciting crop of Cuban players available to Major League ball clubs.  So far that has not taken place and the Orioles have not been serious bidders on any Cuban defectors.

There were many dissenters when it came to this exhibition series.  Cuban Americans and those sympathetic to their cause were livid with the possibility of the outcome of this series shining a positive light on Fidel Castro, perceived by many as a murderous dictator.  Players definitely didn’t want to get involved.

Outfielder B.J. Surhoff, shortly before leaving for Cuba, said, “There’s no way to know what [Cubans] are going through, and we don’t pretend to. That being said, as players we’re going down there to play a game, and that’s the extent of it.”

Most exhibition games aren’t taken seriously and the score is of little importance.  This game was different. It was the first test of Cuban baseball’s mettle in a professional setting since before the revolution.  How did the Cubans stack up? Were they as good as Major-Leaguers as many had whispered?  The Cuban players aimed to find out as over 50,000 people of all ages packed the ancient Estadio Latinoamericano.

The players were on the field warming up and out of nowhere came a loud cheer, “Fidel, Fidel”. Fidel Castro had walked onto the field like he owned the place, straight, tall and firm. He came to greet the Baltimore Orioles and shook everyone’s hand. Albert Belle, Brady Anderson, Manager Ray Miller and others quickly surrounded the 73 year old leader curious to get an up-close look at him in his combat fatigues. Castro told the Orioles’ players through an interrupter “This is a good baseball town, and not to worry you’re playing in front of the greatest baseball fans in the world”. Since there’s no such thing as luxury boxes in Estadio Latinoamericano, Fidel Castro took the next best seat. A front row seat directly behind home plate and sandwiched between baseball commissioner Bud Selig and Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos.

 

In the 2nd inning Baltimore’s Charles Johnson hit a 2-run HR to put the Orioles up 2-0.  Jose Ibar, the starting pitcher for the Cuban team, was quickly pulled following the HR (a move common in Cuban baseball).  Ibar was 18-2 the previous season. Ibar was replaced by future defector Jose Contreras, who pitched 8 sparkling innings striking out 10 while allowing only 2 hits.

Baltimore starter Scott Erickson held the Cubans scoreless until the 7th inning, allowing an RBI single to Roberquis Videaux.  In the 8th Erickson was pulled and much-beloved Cuban ballplayer Omar Linares drove in the tying run. The fans at Estadio Latinoamericano were whipped into a frenzy but it was not to be as infamous Cuban pitcher Pedro Luis Lazo allowed a single to Harold Baines that drove in Will Clark from second base. Game over, Orioles win 3-2.

Although the Cuban team did lose, it was a competitive game and they were in it until the very end.  Jose Contreras’ pitching performance was proof positive that the pitching could hang with MLB talent.  As well, the Cubans outhit the Orioles 10-6.  Not bad for a team that pays its players $11 per month.  Compare that to the Orioles’ payroll of $80 million and you have an extreme value play.

An unfortunate sidebar to this game was the notable absence of Orioles’s star SS Cal Ripken Jr. Ripken was unable to join the team in Cuba because of the declining health and eventual passing of his father, Cal Ripken Sr.  Most disappointed was Cuban third baseman Omar Linares, a lifelong Cal Ripken fan.  However, Cal Jr. did play in the rematch at Camden Yards on May 3rd. 

The Cuban team that travelled to Baltimore was a different team than the one that played in Havana:

The Cuban team that traveled to Baltimore was carefully assembled and did not include star infielders German Mesa and Yobal Duena. Losing defectors during the trip would have embarrassed Castro’s regime.

This game was a lot different this time with the Cuban team outplaying the Orioles in all facets of the game.  In front of 47, 940 fans, the Cubans hammered out 18 hits on their way to a 12-6 win.  Cuba owned Baltimore that night, even to the point of having Boog’s BBQ serve moros y cristianos (black beans and rice).

Cuban starter Norge Vera, who was 10-9 with a 2.26 ERA in the Cuban League, came on in relief for Team Cuba after Cuba’s starter was quick-hooked after giving up 2 runs (again).

From the second inning through the eighth, Vera no-hit the Orioles, facing only one batter over the minimum during that span. In two at-bats against Vera, Belle struck out looking both times.

Scott Kaminiecki started for the Orioles and gave up 4 runs to the Cubans, giving them a 4-2 lead – a lead they would not relinquish.

In the 5th inning there were fireworks.  Three anti-Castro protesters ran on to the field and headed for straightaway centre.  Cuban-born umpire Cesar Valdez was manning 2B for this game and took the “liberty” of body-slamming and punching one of the anti-Castro demonstrators in shallow centre field.

“Above all, I am Cuban,” Valdez said. “I just thought it was the right way to do it.”

After a short delay the game resumed and the Cubans tacked on 5 more runs in the 9th inning.   Delino DeShields hit a 3 run shot in the home half as it wasn’t nearly enough.

“It was a one-sided game,” Cuban manager Alfonso Urquiola said. “We didn’t expect this.”

After the final out, the Cubans celebrated on the mound with a Cuban flag before the teams shook hands. Several Cuban players stopped in front of their dugout to salute their fans.

Following the game, Commissioner Bug Selig announced that 4 additional teams had requested to be part of a Cuban series.  However no games vs. Cuban opponents ever materialized and relations with Cuba soured under the George W. Bush administration.  Could it ever happen again?  Perhaps it could – and sooner than you think.  Orioles owner Peter Angelos wants to return to Cuba this spring.

“Hopefully as next spring approaches, both governments will see clearer to improve the relations and make it rather easy for there to be a reciprocal arrangement,” said Angelos, who declined to comment to The Baltimore Sun on Friday. “Personally, I think the relations between the two countries should be clearly and emphatically re-established.”

The Obama administration already has taken steps to improve relations with Cuba, so it shouldn’t be that difficult for the Orioles to get government approval to bypass the long-standing trade and travel embargo that has been imposed by the U.S. government since the early 1960s. State Department officials said Friday that they did not know of any discussions with the Orioles about a second goodwill trip, though Angelos said there have been informal talks with the government but he has yet to hear back.

I know for a fact that if MLB decided to reignite the Cuban flame, it wouldn’t turn out to be a vague and hazy memory.  The media landscape has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. If another game or series were to happen this spring it will be much more meaningful than 10 years ago.  Why? Whether the intent is to foster international relations with Cuba or to create awareness about Castro’s “evil regime,” the outcome will have a more profound, dramatic impact and receive much more international exposure  Not to mention covered more thoroughly - remember, 10 years ago there were no bloggers!

Oh - that Delino DeShields story I mentioned previously?  I have it on good authority that when DeShields was in Havana for the exhibition game, some of the Canadian sportswriters covering the game told him about the Esquina Caliente (find out more about the Esquina in My Cuban Baseball Experience post) in downtown Havana.  After learning about it he showed up there and spent time with the fanatics that reside there.  As my very reliable source says, “Pretty cool – but then, that’s why he was one of the best!!!!” 

has written for Mopupduty.com since 2006. Follow Callum on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram (@callumhughson)