The Washington Post
March 30, 1999
 
 
O's Cuba Trip Is Scored a Hit By Officials
 
Baseball Executives Say Expectations Were Fulfilled

                  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
                  Raitt."

                  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
                  anywhere.

                  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 when
                  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
                  bidding war."

                  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. "But if
                  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 and
                  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
                  well."

                  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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