President Obama: MLB exhibition in Cuba ‘something extraordinary’


Today I’m taking Michelle and our girls out to a ballgame. That’s something Americans do all the time, but this game is something extraordinary.

It’s the first exhibition game between a major league team — the Tampa Bay Rays — and the Cuban national team in 17 years. It’s only the second time an MLB team has visited Cuba since 1959. And most importantly, it’s a symbol of the bonds between Americans and Cubans despite decades of isolation — a small step that shows that our nations can begin to move beyond the divisions of the past and look toward a future of greater connections and cooperation between our countries.

One of the things we share is our national pastimes — la pelota. As the quote from “Field of Dreams” goes, “the one constant through all the years … has been baseball.” That’s as true in America as it is in Cuba. Whether it’s the middle of an Iowa cornfield or the neighborhoods of Havana, our landscapes are dotted with baseball diamonds. Our kids grow up learning to run the bases and count balls and strikes. And many of our greatest ballplayers have taken the field together.

Since 1959, about 100 players from Cuba have played for MLB clubs. Four Cuban-born players are enshrined in Cooperstown, including Cincinnati Redsgreat Tony Perez. And just looking at one team — say, my Chicago White Sox — you can see Cuba’s imprint through the generations. One of the White Sox’s all-time greats, the late Minnie Minoso, was born near Havana. Jose Contreras and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez helped bring a World Series trophy to the South Side back in 2005. And one of our best players today — and one of the game’s best sluggers — also comes from Cuba: first baseman Jose Abreu.

“That’s what this visit is about: remembering what we share, reflecting upon the barriers we’ve broken — as people and as nations — and looking toward a better future.”

President Barack Obama

Baseball in Cuba has played a part in America’s broader history as well. In 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers and their farm club, including Jackie Robinson, spent spring training in Havana. Before he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, Jackie took the field at the famed Estadio Latinoamericano for exhibitions against both American and Cuban teams. It’s the same stadium where we’ll watch today’s game. And it will be an honor to watch with Jackie’s wife, Rachel, and their daughter, Sharon, who are here as part of our delegation.

That’s what this visit is about: remembering what we share, reflecting upon the barriers we’ve broken — as people and as nations — and looking toward a better future. Because while I will not ignore the important differences between our governments, I came to Cuba to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.

They’re the reason I cast off the failed, Cold War-era policy that left so many Cubans in conflict, exile and poverty in favor of a new course. They’re why our governments are now cooperating on health and education initiatives. They’re why we’re helping families connect by restoring direct commercial flights and mail service. And they’re why we’re expanding commercial ties and increasing the capacity of Americans to travel to do business in Cuba.

These steps, and my visit here this week, are just small steps in a long road ahead. But I believe the American people and the Cuban people can make this journey as friends, as family and, yes, as baseball fans. ¡Pleibol!

MLB game must help unify all Cubans


ESPN MLB analyst and former professional baseball player Eduardo Perez talks about returning to his native country of Cuba for the first time in 24 years. (2:05)

Cuban kids in south Florida grow up fearing a boogie man, one who is a living, breathing person. There’s no way you could be raised in a Cuban household and not hear of Fidel Castro, whose name is usually preceded or followed by a string of expletives. You’re taught to hate Castro with all your being.

I grew up in the quintessential blue-collar Cuban exile community of Hialeah, Florida. The industrial Miami suburb was so blue-collar that we had a self-deprecating slogan to describe it: “Hialeah: Agua, Fango y Factoria” (Hialeah: Water, Mud and Factories).

I recall Cuban children openly chanting, “Arriba, abajo, Fidel para el carajo,” which translates roughly to something like, “Up and down, Fidel can go f— himself.” That’s certainly not a Mother Goose rhyme or “Three Blind Mice.” It’s not what one would expect from a bunch of elementary school kids, yet the chant should begin to explain the hatred toward Castro and his duplicitous rule in Cuba.

Many Cubans take a hard-line stance against Castro’s Cuba. I respect and understand the hard-liners. I grew up in a household of them and have been surrounded by them all my life.

My theory is that change doesn’t come without some pain. The Cuban people have felt a lifetime of pain, and many don’t think they can or should endure any more. My family isn’t exempt from these feelings. There is even some conflict among family and friends.

My father suffered a massive stroke in 2003. His carotid artery had to be shut down, which made him physically handicapped and limited in his speech. He can listen, read and comprehend anything put or said in front of him. In essence, though, he’s trapped in his own body.

Despite that, my father continues to be the typical Cuban dad: proud, loud and seething with anger deep in his soul toward the Castro regime. Regardless of his physical limitations, my father’s mind remains strongly and stubbornly intact. Even before his ailment, he wore his emotions on his sleeve. Nothing has changed. I recognize this most when my father sees either the faces of Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul Castro, or their names in print. The contorted look on my dad’s face reveals his obvious disgust. He is gurgling with rage.

My father represents one of thousands of people who suffered all sorts of human rights atrocities at the hands of Cuba’s communist regime. Upon arriving in the United States, Cuban exiles such as my father built new lives for themselves by working endlessly to create better situations for their families. They sacrificed everything for a chance at freedom. That way, their children would never have to endure what they did.

Many, such as my mom, still have relatives in Cuba who for many years have lacked basic necessities. During El Periodo Especial (The Special Period), which began in 1989 during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, my mother received word from her relatives in Cuba that they had barely any water and had no food, soap or toothpaste. Their bodies were rotting.

I’ll never forget being old enough to understand what was going on and seeing my mother almost crumble to the ground, sobbing upon receiving this news. My parents immediately left the house and spent hundreds of dollars to buy and ship necessities to Cuba. This was, and continues to be, common throughout my life — seeing my mom spend every available dollar to help a number of relatives who remain on the island.

These are relatives I have never met. We are familiar with each other through letters, photographs and stories passed down within our families. Countless other Cuban families share this reality. How long will they have to suffer? Hasta cuando? (Until when?)

Enter Major League Baseball.

President Barack Obama will be in Havana on Tuesday for an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team. He will be the first U.S. president to set foot in Cuba in almost 90 years.

Major League Baseball, meanwhile, is working with the U.S. and Cuban governments to create a legal way for Cuban baseball players to play in America without having to flee their country. Ideally, this would eliminate the stories of human trafficking involving players such as Livan Hernandez, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, Yasiel Puig and many others.

All of this is good news and should be celebrated, though a win for Cuban baseball players and potentially the Cuban people is perceived by many as also a win for Cuba’s totalitarian government. No es facil (It’s not easy). The Cuban exiles have dealt personally with so many injustices at the hands of Fidel and Raul Castro that one can understand their outrage over any efforts to aid the brothers.

But sports can be the great unifier. Whether it’s Nelson Mandela as the first post-apartheid president of South Africa using the rugby World Cup to help heal his country, soccer player Didier Drogba pleading with two warring factions in the Ivory Coast to aid the peace process or Jordan Farmar using a basketball camp in Israel to bring Israeli and Palestinian children together, sports can help nations bridge differences and overcome rifts.

The exhibition game Tuesday can be an impetus for real change. For this game to have that kind of social impact, governments and political figures need to use diplomacy to address the numerous and obvious issues at hand.

It’s imperative that commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball succeed in reaching some accord with the two governments to allow Cuban ballplayers to work in the U.S. Ideally, this would extend to all lines of work, so others on the island could also earn a living in the U.S.

The next and final appeal might be the toughest of all. Many reading this will not understand what a monumental request it is:

To all those courageous exiles, you paved the way for me and thousands of others to be born in the greatest country in the world. Your blood, sweat and tears are not lost on me and my contemporaries. But I’m begging you to try to overcome a lifetime of pain and mistrust. It’s time for the Cuban exile community to stop playing a split-squad game and for all Cubans to play on the same team. This needs to happen in order to help those who remain on the island, those who don’t have a voice, our people.

Si no ahora, cuando?

If not now, when?

Jorge Sedano co-hosts the “Jorge & Izzy” show with Israel Gutierrez on ESPN Radio.

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