HAVANA • At the beginning of a historic press conference in the venerable Hotel Nacional de Cuba, the chief for the Major League Baseball Players Association, Tony Clark, asked the gathered group of more than 100 a question, in Spanish.
“La pelota es vida,” he said, smiling. “Si or no?”
The crowd, filled with local media and officials, shouted back: “Si.”
Baseball is life. Of course.
Now we’ll see if it’s a bridge.
Clark and Major League Baseball executive Joe Torre formally began a three-day goodwill tour of Cuba with Tuesday’s press conference. With Fidel Castro’s son and powerful Cuban baseball official Antonio Castro in the audience, the officials from both the players and the owners side spoke of returning to Cuba in the near future, the next time for a game, and pledged mutual interest in reaching an agreement for the safer passage of Cuban baseball players to the majors without having to flee, defect, or risk danger through seedier smuggling practices. This visit is baseball’s first since 1999 to Cuba and a very public attempt to create a relationship with Cuba’s baseball.
Eight active major-league baseball players, four of whom previously had fled Cuba, sat in the front row as baseball attempted to span the short 57-minute flight between Miami and Cuba that separates countries that have been worlds apart for decades.
“It is the goal of our commissioner to open negotiations with the Cuban Baseball Federation and the government to make a safe and legal path for Cuban baseball players who desire to play in Major League Baseball,” said Dan Halem, baseball’s chief legal officer, just a few hours into his first-ever visit to the island. “(The risk) that the players have to go through to get to the major leagues is not acceptable to our commissioner. I don’t think it’s acceptable to the players’ association. It’s going to require the cooperation of more than just Major League Baseball and the players’ association. It’s going to take cooperation from two governments and the Cuban Baseball Federation.”
Halem added later in a conversation with The Post-Dispatch that there is a difference between getting all of the officials in the same room for the goodwill visit and another to get them at the same table for negotiations.
“We’re not having substantive discussions here,” Halem said. “This is an outreach to let our players — and we have some really good players here — to meet people here in Cuba and allow that to develop a closer bond. It’s always easier to have a discussion with individuals when you have a shared history coming here and meeting people from the Cuban Baseball Federation and having our players meet Cuban baseball players at the youth level. We think this will be that kind of cultural exchange.”
The complexities of relations between Cuba and America and the baseball leagues involved surrounded the arrival of players and officials Tuesday.
Immediately after he stepped off the private bus from the hotel, Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena was grabbed by the arm and whisked into the hotel where family members he had not seen in nearly 17 years awaited him. As many as 20 family members, some of whom drove three hours to Havana, had come to see the major-league veteran who left Cuba as a teenager in 1999. At the middle of the group stood Rosa Hernandez, Pena’s 84-year-old grandmother from Playa in Havana who had not seen her grandson since he walked away from Cuba’s national team while at an international tournament. Pena had been imagining this reunion for days and still struggled to come up with the words between broad grins.
“Bigger. Better. More emotional,” he said. “I’m glad you guys weren’t here earlier because there were some tears.”
Former Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay and his wife Nikki Jay (nee Stecich), who grew up in Kirkwood, also were part of the traveling party. Jay, the son of two Cubans, said he dreamed of traveling all over the world and yet never thought he’d see the island off the coast of his hometown Miami. Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw accepted an invitation to join the tour — but said that he would have to throw. He created commotion at the Hotel Nacional when he and former big-leaguer Jose Cruz Jr. found a swatch of grass on the back side of the hotel grounds for a game of catch.
The hope is that on the trip they’ll find a Cuban catcher for him.
The tricky relations between the two countries were apparent personally and publicly. In a room adjacent to the press conference, Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu paced nervously while on the phone. Two years and four months after he pushed off the shore in a boat, possibly never to return, Abreu was back — and able to see the young son he left behind. Dariel Eduardo Abreu Aguilar, 5, arrived at the hotel and walked through the lobby wearing a White Sox cap on his way to see his dad.
During the press conference, a reporter asked if Major League Baseball intended to ever pay the winnings owed Cuba’s national team for its high finishes in recent World Baseball Classic tournaments.
Halem explained that as an American company, baseball couldn’t pay but would as soon as the embargo is lifted or eased. That same restriction would be a problem for one concept being considered by Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation.
Antonio Castro has had discussions with baseball about how to pave a path to the majors for talented Cuban ballplayers. Cuba could try to follow the model used in Asia where teams receive a posting fee from the major-league team that then signs the players. The catch would be in Cuba that money likely would go to the government.
Halem said such triangulation between baseball and governments will “take time.”
“Baseball unites all of us,” Clark said. “We have an opportunity to be here today as a snapshot, a picture of how baseball connects us all. We are hopeful that this is the first of many opportunities to come. … The challenges are complex and it’s not a simple answer one way or the other. When baseball is strong around the world, the entire game benefits.”
This visit will continue Wednesday and Thursday with clinics for about 180 youth players in Cuba. The players will return to Miami on Friday. The commissioner’s office is “cautiously optimistic” that there will be two spring training games held in Cuba this coming March. Tampa Bay has been selected to represent the majors.
This visit grew out of an idea from Yoenis Cespedes, the free-agent outfielder. Cespedes won the Home Run Derby in 2014 at Citi Field and, as part of the price, suggested he wanted to do something for a charity in his native Cuba. Union official Leonor Colon and many others from Major League Baseball and the union began to orchestrate the first trip in nearly a generation.
On the ride from the airport to the hotel, Torre joked that, at 75, he was the only one who recognized the vintage cars wheeling through traffic. He saw a Studebaker, and counted more Chevys than any other.
The cars, some with their pastel and orang-sickle colors, added to the sense that Havana had been frozen in time since the revolution. There is an overt lack of consumerism with no Starbucks on the corner, no Subway down the block. It all gives off the impression that not much has changed.
Not so, Pena said.
Something is very different today about the homeland he left in 1999.