Why Major League Baseball's Visit to Cuba Matters
ALEJANDRO ERNESTO/EPA
Sports

Why Major League Baseball's Visit to Cuba Matters

America has been obsessed with what was in Cuba at the expense of what is. Tuesday's game is a chance to change that.
March 22, 2016, 6:30pm

My mother was five years old when she left Cuba in 1960. She piled into a Chevy station wagon with her mother, her father, her two sisters, and a few prized possessions. They drove the Chevy from their apartment in Havana onto a ferry, and the ferry took them to Miami. Later that year, Fidel Castro closed Cuba to American ships. My great grandmother and great aunt didn't make it to Miami until 1965. My great grandfather, stuck in Havana, wasn't able to join the rest of his family until 1975.

By the time the embargo was enacted in 1962, my mom's family—American grandfather and Cuban grandmother—had settled down in Miami amongst tens of thousands of other exiles. Years later, they would tell me stories about a place that had been lost. They told those stories as if Cuba itself ceased to exist as soon as Fidel Castro rose to power. The people left behind weren't necessarily lost in the telling, but they weren't really characters either. They were just the emaciated proof of how bad things still were there.

But Cuba didn't go anywhere, and this has been the problem with American policy toward the island for more than fifty years. We have remained obsessed with what was at the expense of what is; with who is in charge at the expense of who is in their charge. The United States has spent half a century trying to teach a lesson to an abuser, and lost sight of the victims in the process.

Read More: The Cuba Diaries

This is exactly why President Obama's trip to Cuba—including the baseball game being played on Tuesday in Havana between the Rays and what remains of the Cuban national team—matters. The trip is not only occurring on the precipice of real, historical policy change, but it is a reminder of why that change is so important. It is about seeing the Cuban people in the real Cuba—not clinging to rafts, or playing right field at Dodger Stadium, or in some imaginary version of the country in which it's still 1959 and everybody is playing dominos all day.

The embargo has made it so we don't stop to consider what actual daily life in Cuba is like—in the streets, and in long lines for telephone cards or for state-run internet access, or waiting for the bus, or buying iPhones brought over from Miami, or rigging up complicated illegal cable setups to watch TV from the United States. We see these spectacularly talented ballplayers arrive in the United States and bash the ball, but we don't think about the antiquated baseball establishment that developed them as players.

Estadio Latinoamericano, which is hosting Tuesday's game, is iconic in that establishment. It is also emblematic of it: a truly a funky and battered old ballpark. The lights over the outfield look like they were built to illuminate a prison yard. Before renovations undertaken ahead of this game, there were seats missing all over the place, sometimes entire rows. The paint was faded, the concourses dark, and the murals bearing revolutionary messages were tired—as if the country had left them behind. In a sense, it has.

During a regular season Serie Nacional night game, you can hear the chatter of side conversations about ballplayers, or see friends running into each other in the aisles. On Tuesday, the seats will be filled with dignitaries, party officials, and foreign media. But even the people connected enough to get tickets were so curious—so excited about the prospect of visiting American pros—that the stadium was nearly full three hours before the first pitch.

Fans began to arrive at the Estadio Latinoamericano more than three hours prior to Tuesday's game. Photo by ALEJANDRO ERNESTO/EPA.

Victor Mesa, the manager of Cuba's national team, played an entire career in Cuba without coming anywhere near a million dollar major league contract. He played in the 1980's as Fidel Castro doubled down on socialist policies. He played into the 1990's, when Cuba fell into famine. He led all hitters in the 1992 Olympics as Cuba won gold. And he raised a family in Cuba. This all happened, and it's not any less valid because it happened on the other side of an embargo. But the embargo meant he never got to play regularly against the competition he deserved to face. It meant that, although millions of his fellow Cubans got to watch him, millions more baseball fans in the United States and around the world didn't.

There is an inclination amongst some people, especially Cuban Americans, to view this visit as something tragic. Dan Le Batard at the Miami Herald and ESPN wrote that it feels like "another loss." That seems to have it backwards. The Castro regime committed atrocities, and for five decades American policies have only exacerbated them.

I'm grateful that my mother and her family were able to get out. They were the lucky ones. The first time I went back to Cuba myself, in 2013, I went see their old apartment, to take a picture in front of the storefront where my grandfather once sold used refrigerators. The buildings are still there, but It didn't take me very long to realize that the Cuba they left behind is long gone.

I realized then that the real loss didn't occur in 1960. The real loss is the five decades of forced isolation and suspended animation that came after. Ending the embargo brings a new set of challenges: how can American capitalism meet Cuba with care and delicacy, so as to avoid a repeat of the 1950s? How can the Cuban economy, which is already liberalizing fast, handle an influx of new capital? How can these two neighbors belatedly learn to coexist?

It may seem like a small thing, but the first step to getting along is getting to know each other. That's why a simple baseball game can matter.