With Improved Relations, Are The U.S. And Cuba Ready To Play Ball? : Parallels Cuban baseball has been struggling. A lack of money means facilities are in disrepair. Defections mean some of the best players have left. But new relations with the U.S. may mean new opportunities.
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With Improved Relations, Are The U.S. And Cuba Ready To Play Ball?

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With Improved Relations, Are The U.S. And Cuba Ready To Play Ball?

With Improved Relations, Are The U.S. And Cuba Ready To Play Ball?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In December, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced their plan to normalize diplomatic relations. So far the immediate aim of the U.S.-Cuba talks is modest - turn interest sections into embassies. But hopes for the process run high in Havana where I spent a week earlier this month. And those hopes touch on a great range of issues and aspects of everyday life, including one Cuban obsession - baseball.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL BAT)

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (Foreign language spoken).

SIEGEL: This Little League stadium is in a big Havana sports complex. A sprinkling of baseball mothers dots the sheltered stands. They watch their sons compete for slots on the Havana team in the under-12 national championship. The signs over the dugouts reflect the binational origins of the Cuban game. Over the dugout along the first baseline is the word visitadores - Spanish for visitors. Over the dugout along the third baseline are the words home club. Cuban baseball is the offspring of a mixed marriage that dissolved in one of the world's most acrimonious divorces. Cubans used to play in the big leagues, black Cubans used to play in the Negro leagues and Americans used to play in the Cuban leagues. Now even the hint of a reconciliation reverberates here and excites Cuban baseball fans. The Little League coach, Luis Hernandez, told me that a national team will play in a worldwide under-12 tournament this year in Taiwan. But relations with the U.S. remain limited.

Cuba can't play in the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania in the United States.

LUIS HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: "There are talks going on right now to reestablish relations. We hope that they'll lead to that kind of exchange. We think we can do it. Why not? From a sports standpoint, we have no problem with it."

SIEGEL: That's my colleague, Eyder Peralta. The kids come to this field every afternoon after school to play and practice for three hours. The passion for baseball can animate Cubans long after their dreams of hitting home runs in Cuban professional ball have faded into the pop flies and ground outs of real life. I went to meet some older baseball fans a few miles away in the center of Old Havana.

(CROSSTALK)

SIEGEL: We're in El Parque Central - Central Park - of Havana, surrounded by some very elegant old buildings, hotels. And a few yards away, after a row of palm trees, you find a knot of men who gather every single day, and they gather here to talk, to argue. One man says, you know, in the absence of a working Internet, this is where people exchange their opinions and where they get news.

They call this place La Esquina Caliente, which is Spanish for the Hot Corner, which is baseball slang for third base. The normalization of baseball relations with the U.S. could mean Cuban players going to play in the states legally. It could mean U.S. teams setting up baseball academies to train young players. I asked Pablo Diaz, a 30-year-old phys ed teacher and Hot Corner regular, whether Cuba needs academies like those.

PABLO DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He says that Cuba doesn't need them. Everyone needs them because it'll fix the deficiencies that Cuban baseball has. So it needs better training, which academies like that would bring. And also it would bring money, which Cuba needs.

SIEGEL: Next stop - Havana's Latin American Stadium, home to the Havana Industriales, the New York Yankees of Cuban baseball. It's also where Heriberto Suarez Pereda has his office.

HERIBERTO SUAREZ PEREDA: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGEL: (Speaking Spanish) Robert Siegel.

PEREDA: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGEL: Suarez is Cuba's commissioner of baseball, and his office is appropriately proletarian. It's about 10 feet by 12, with plaques on the walls and a baseball game on the analog TV set. The commissioner says Cuban baseball is harmed by the Cuban Adjustment Act, which grants special, instantly legal status to Cubans who set foot on American soil.

PEREDA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "It gives any baseball player who's playing in an international tournament the ability to leave and then gain residency within a year."

He says that it gives Cuban players rights that other players don't have. For example, a player from any other country that might leave their country at a young age would have to wait a certain amount of time before playing whereas a Cuban is given a fast-track into this and he believes that there is a political component to that decision.

PEREDA: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGEL: "The Cuban Adjustment Act," he says, "encourages defections." The commissioner says there have not been talks with Major League Baseball yet, but he's hopeful about a better relationship and an end to the embargo.

PEREDA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: So he says the embargo is irrational. It doesn't make any sense. "Sport is a vehicle for the love between nations, and we should allow that the flourish."

(SOUNDBITE OF VUVUZELAS)

SIEGEL: Welcome to a Cuban baseball game. I went to see the Industriales host Granma in an important late-season game.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGEL: There were at least 10,000 fans there seated in the Cuban style. Granma fans sat along the first base side; home team fans sat along the third base side. And behind home plate are the VIPs and people like me who buy tickets with convertible currency - the money you buy with dollars, not the pesos that ordinary Cubans are paid with.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: There are no hotdogs or Cracker Jacks for sale, but vendors do hawk pork sandwiches, popcorn, coffee and plantain chips. There's no advertising in the stadium, no sky boxes; no seventh- inning stretch either. Instead there's a fifth-inning break when the umpires are served hot coffee. It is a winter season, and when it's over the two best players in this game go to play in Japan. Granma's slugger, Alfredo Despaigne, and this player...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Speaking Spanish) Yulieski Gouriel.

SIEGEL: Industriales's 29-year-old third baseman, Yulieski Gourriel, who's regarded as the best player in Cuban baseball.

Do you wish you had a chance to play in the major leagues?

YULIESKI GOURRIEL: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He says, "of course." He says, "it's every player's dream to play in the place that plays the best baseball in the world, that everybody knows that's the major leagues. And with Cuba's permission we'll do it."

SIEGEL: The problem for Cuban baseball is how many players have gone without Cuba's permission. Instead of making the equivalent of about $40 a month in Cuba's low-income, highly subsidized economy, they have fled in droves to the USA. I watched the Granma-Industriales game with a longtime fan of the game, baseball historian Ismael Sene, a retired intelligence officer. He told me defections have weakened the Cuban league. One team has lost 15 pitchers to defections. Granma lost two pitchers just a couple of weeks ago. Sene says there aren't enough good arms to fill the pitching staffs of the league's 16 teams. Cuban baseball, he says, has to change. For one thing, it has to shrink.

ISMAEL SENE: First, we have to change ourselves, the organization of our baseball.

SIEGEL: Oh, my. Despaigne - it looks like he's hit a double off the left-field wall. He's knocked in a run - and second and third.

Sene says the pitcher can't throw three strikes. He says also that Cuba should put its players under contract, the way the Japanese do, and require them to play a few years in Cuba. Sene says the defection problems could go away in two or three years if that happened.

SENE: If we reach a kind of agreement with the United States in which they will enforce that our people have to follow the rules and have to fulfill their contracts - that will be the best thing that can happen to our baseball.

SIEGEL: The dearth of pitching figured in this game. While Granma's staff did surprisingly well, Industriales started the same pitcher who had closed the game two nights before and he was hit up for five runs in the top of the first.

SENE: The game is over.

SIEGEL: It's a groundball to third, throw to first; he's out. Eleven to 4, Granma beats the Industriales. Well, we didn't see a pitching duel, but we saw a fun ballgame.

SENE: Yeah (laughter).

SIEGEL: OK, thanks a lot for being with us.

SENE: No, thank you.

SIEGEL: Cubans are realistic enough to know that their best players will not stay on the island. But many told me they'd like to see their national team include players who are playing in the majors. Would the ones who left be welcomed back? The baseball commissioner told me it would depend on what they did before leaving. It's a war, he said, and they are traitors. But Frank Camilo Morejon, the catcher for the Industriales and for the Cuba national team, took a sympathetic view.

FRANK CAMILO MOREJON: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "I don't think it's ever been a taboo and it hasn't affected the Cuban team. The players who have decided to stay have always tried to play their best. We give everything for our country, but that doesn't mean that we disrespect those who make that personal decision. We're not against that - on the contrary. They won't stop being our friends, brothers and compatriots."

SIEGEL: Whether they can take the field again with those friends without having to leave their country is now a question for the diplomats. And the health of Cuban baseball is riding on the answer.

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