By Richard Justice
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 1999; Page D01
HAVANA, March 29óBaseball put an appropriate finishing touch on a
historic weekend when dozens of team executives jammed into a
ramshackle airport this morning to board a charter flight back to the United
States. There, a night after rubbing elbows with Fidel Castro, they found
themselves squeezing into line alongside Bonnie Raitt, Mick Fleetwood,
Woody Harrelson and a host of other musicians and celebrities who had
attended a week-long jazz festival.
"You know," Montreal Expos General Manager Jim Beattie said with a
smile, "in baseball you meet a lot of famous people -- like Fidel and Bonnie
Beattie and other executives had come here not knowing what to expect.
Most had seen the Cuban national team play at least once, but few ever
had been allowed into a world that had been off-limits to major league
teams for four decades.
By the time they departed this morning, after watching the Baltimore
Orioles defeat a group of Cuban all-stars, 3-2, in 11 innings on Sunday,
they said they were thrilled to have made the trip. Several executives also
had watched Game 2 of the Cuban World Series on Saturday, and the
two games reinforced a lot of what major league baseball's leaders already
had known about Cuban baseball.
"I think we saw what we expected to see," Atlanta Braves President Stan
Kasten said. "They've got pitchers who are ready to play in our league."
Beattie said: "It was definitely worth it. We came with a certain mystique
about baseball in Cuba, and now we've gotten to see it firsthand. I'm not
sure of all the political ramifications, but from a baseball standpoint, it was
very helpful. Next time, we'll understand what it's all about. We won't have
the same fear or awe."
It was a game played on several levels. For the Orioles, it was a spring
training game played on a world stage. For the Cubans, it was a chance to
test their game against some of the world's best known players. As Cuban
third baseman Omar Linares said: "I've waited all my life for this moment."
For team executives and scouts, it was a chance to see one of the last
untapped areas rich with baseball talent. From Linares, who is widely
known as the best player in the world not playing in the major leagues, to
pitchers such as Jose Contreras, who pitched eight shutout innings, the
Cubans showed those scouts that they are as good as any players
Castro joked at a reception Sunday night that when the two teams play
again May 3 in Baltimore, the outcome might be different because, "We're
going to have our whole team."
Several of the top Cuban players -- especially shortstop German Mesa
and second baseman Antonio Pacheco -- were unavailable because they
are participating in the country's World Series.
"Sure, they've got guys that could pitch in the big leagues, especially
you consider how thin pitching is these days," said Fred Ferreira, vice
president and head of international development for the Montreal Expos.
"When the day comes that we can sign Cuban players, there's going to
have to be a special lottery or a draft. It's got to be fair to prevent a
After the game, Orioles Manager Ray Miller was asked if the Cuban team
was good enough to play in the American big leagues.
"I'm not sure I see enough power," Miller said. "Certainly, I saw enough
pitching to play in the major leagues."
But the Orioles showed only a bit more power, that coming on a two-run
home run by catcher Charles Johnson. The Orioles had only five other hits:
three singles, a double by Brady Anderson and a bad-hop double by Will
Clark that set up the winning run in the 11th.
"I heard it said the Cubans didn't have a lot of power," Beattie said.
you watched the Orioles yesterday, you wouldn't say they had a lot of
power, either. It's just a different approach."
As National League President Leonard Coleman said: "[The Cubans']
pitching and speed and defense are outstanding. Really, it's like good old
National League baseball."
Commissioner Bud Selig, admittedly exhausted after two long days of
travel and receptions, found fans who shared his passion for the game.
And Selig said he had to pinch himself several times as he spent hours in
the company of Castro.
Selig chose his words carefully, realizing that hundreds of Cuban exiles
critics of the Castro regime believed Major League Baseball made a
mistake by extending an olive branch to an oppressive government.
"Given the sensitivity of everything, I thought it went well," Selig said.
"Obviously, I worried a lot about all the ramifications. I thought our staff
and the Orioles and [team owner] Peter Angelos really did well. If you
view this as part of a sports cultural exchange, I think it went remarkably
He said the time with Castro "was a remarkable experience. All we did
was talk baseball. He asked a lot of questions about baseball -- about the
game and the economics. That's a subject I love."
Will there be more Cuban trips for major league teams?
"That's the call of our government and State Department and the Cuban
government," Selig said. "The thing you're constantly impressed with is the
significance of baseball. The Cuban people were really happy we were
there. I walked outside the ballpark before the game, and it reminded me
of walking outside a ballpark here."
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