The Miami Herald
March 29, 1999
Castro took baseball away, too

             Pitcher Jose Contreras is hailed as a hero in Cuba today because Fidel Castro
             says he embodies everything that is good about the tyrant's revolution. Virtually
             unknown in the United States, this peasant's son from Pinar Del Rio, a man
             without a dollar in his pockets, tamed a team of major league millionaires Sunday

             Yes, the Baltimore Orioles eventually prevailed over a Cuban all-star team in the
             historic exhibition at Estadio Latinoamericano, the first meeting between a major
             league and Cuban club in 40 years.

             But the six-foot-two Contreras cast a giant shadow over Baltimore's stirring 3-2
             victory in 11 innings. He confounded Baltimore hitters with a dizzying array of
             sliders, curves and 95-mph fastballs in pitching eight shutout innings.

             After Contreras struck out 10 batters, Castro congratulated him, privately calling
             him ``the intrepid stopper for our leaking pitching staff.''

             Speculation abounds in Cuba and the United States that players such as Contreras
             could defect when the Cuban team plays in Baltimore in May.

             ``I don't care what the score of [Sunday's] game was. If the prize decides to leave
             us, the embarrassment to Castro will be bigger than any exhibition loss,'' said one
             Cuban who spoke from the island nation Sunday evening.

             When the Cuban national team travels to Baltimore May 3, the customary group
             of exiles offering a link to defection will also be there.

             ``The only reason I won't be there is if I'm dead,'' said South Florida baseball
             agent Joe Cubas, who has helped half a dozen players defect from Cuba.

             Cubas will not say if he has contacted or will target any Cuban players for
             defection in Baltimore. But he is traveling to Baltimore perilously soon after a
             major surgical procedure. He is not risking his health simply to take in an exhibition

             Whether some players defect or not will not determine the fate of these exhibitions.
             Baltimore owner Peter Angelos said Sunday he knows of ``two or three'' other
             major league teams that have applied to travel to Cuba. And Cuba is fertile ground
             for baseball talent so replacements will always crop up to replace the defectors.

             But the heightened concerns about defections by some of Cuba's baseball heroes
             serve as clear evidence that Castro's repressive rule is rotting the country to its

             And baseball, my friends, is at Cuba's core.

             During his 40-year reign, Castro has robbed the Cuban people of their human
             rights, their food, and in the extreme, their lives. But word spread around La
             Habana last week that Castro was about to pull his most sinister act: He was going
             to rob the common person of the national game.

             The government prohibited ordinary citizens from attending Sunday's exhibition.
             Invitations were printed and issued and no one without one could attend.

             Of course, the invitations went to communist party members and others within
             Castro's favored elite. The common folks were so enraged, they stayed away en
             masse from the country's league championship series game Saturday night.

             The Estadio Latinoamericano was only half-full as the Industriales took a 2-0
             series lead over Santiago de Cuba. So Castro's invitation miscalculation has
             already heightened civil dissent within the populace.

             There are local Cuban exiles who argue Sunday's exhibition was nonetheless
             poorly conceived and ill-timed. Cubas is a powerful voice in that chorus.

             ``I think it's a tragedy and a travesty that on one side of the world we're bombing a
             dictator for committing atrocities against his people and on the other side of the
             world we're playing baseball with a dictator for doing the same thing,'' Cubas says.

             Many exiles also argue Castro benefits from the exhibition.

             Where? Everywhere you look, this exhibition exacted a cost from Castro.

             He had to stand during the Star Spangled Banner. That had to cut a slit in his
             communist, imperialist-hating heart. And the pain was no-doubt amplified when
             baseball commissioner Bud Selig sang a full-throated rendition right next to him.

             Second, Castro was forced to endure sitting between the egomaniacal Angelos
             and the personality-deprived Selig for 11 innings.

             Then, the Orioles controlled most of the game. Yes, the Cubans rallied with runs in
             the seventh and eighth innings. But it was clear Cuba's players had little muscle in
             the lineup and little mastery on the mound absent Contreras.

             A shell of the Baltimore team that will be lucky to play .500 ball in the American
             League East this summer was obviously superior.

             But the greatest cost from this exhibition series to the publicity conscious Castro
             may not come until May -- when the hero the dictator treasured on Sunday may
             travel to Baltimore, and never leave.


                               Copyright © 1999 The Miami Herald