'Power of Baseball': Crowd of 55,000 in Cuba

March 22nd, 2016

Baseball delivered a day of hope and optimism and warmth on Tuesday, a day that seemed symbolic of so much more. Sometimes, a simple thing like a baseball game can be a powerful tool of love and respect, especially when it stands in stark juxtaposition to the awfulness half a world away.

There they sat side by side, two men, Barack Obama and Raul Castro, leaders of the United States and Cuba, representing countries so geographically close to one another yet completely isolated for 63 years, symbols of fear and mistrust.

They chatted and smiled, cheered for their teams, the Rays and the Cubans, visited with those around them. This is what we do at baseball games. This is one of the reasons we love them. We are brought together by them.

Sometimes, though, the ordinary is extraordinary. On this day, especially on this day, when our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Brussels in the wake of the deadly terror attacks, this baseball game seemed a perfect, jarring visual.

Amid the pageantry and emotion, the Rays won the game, 4-1. In this final countdown to Opening Day, they may just remember this day for the rest of their lives, especially a packed Estadio Latinoamericano that had the atmosphere of a block party, or maybe Mardi Gras, as 55,000 fans stood and sang and screamed the whole day.

"You can see the happiness with what is happening here in the stadium in Cuba," Cuban Baseball Federation vice president Antonio Castro, son of former president Fidel, told ESPN. "It's amazing for both countries. It's amazing for the fanatics, it's amazing for everybody."

There was a time -- and not that long ago -- when this kind of thing simply didn't seem possible. If you're of a certain age, you grew up with a gnawing fear that Cuba -- and by extension, the Soviet Union -- threatened our existence.

:: Complete coverage: Historic Cuba visit ::

Obama's hope is that normalizing relations between the two countries will make life better for Cubans. There are a long list of issues still dividing the two countries, but this day was a reminder that there is common ground on a baseball diamond.

"We initiated a new policy of engagement, not out of naivete," Obama told ESPN. "We understand that the government here continues to control all aspects of life, that individual freedoms continue to be curtailed. But our belief is if you've got more Americans traveling, if you've got more commerce, if you've got more interaction, if our ideas and our culture is penetrating this society, that over time, that gives us more leverage to advocate for the values that we care about."

Appropriately, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred was accompanied by Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel Robinson, and her daughter Sharon. These women stand as a reminder that countries -- and perhaps people -- can change.

Jackie Robinson played in Havana in the winter of 1947 before joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in Spring Training and changing the world forever. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that Robinson -- and baseball -- were valuable in the civil rights movement that followed.

To see Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color line, to see him out there with Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges and the icons of white baseball and white America, forced Americans to reckon with a different world.

Robinson pushed the United States in the right direction, taking us down the beginning of a path toward voting rights, school and restaurant desegregation and ultimately Obama's election as our 44th president.

"That's the power of baseball," Obama told ESPN. "That's the power of sports. It can change attitudes sometimes in ways a politician can never change [them], a speech can't change. All those kids who started growing up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and suddenly they're rooting for a black man on the field, and how that affects their attitudes laying the groundwork for the civil rights movement, that's a legacy we all have benefited from, black and white and Latino and Asian. What it did was it taught America, it's the skills, it's the talent, it's the character, and not the color, that matters."

Someday, we may look back and see this baseball game between the Rays and the Cubans as bigger than a mere game. Maybe, just maybe, these two old adversaries understand one another a bit better.

The Rays were chosen to make the trip from a lottery, but the choice was perfect. Their players represented the sport magnificently, saying and doing the right things, soaking up the history and meaning.

"I would say this trip has changed me forever," Rays pitcher Chris Archer told reporters.

Archer's memories surely will be of Havana's poverty, but also its people, loving, polite and enthusiastic. They love baseball to their core, and that's the common language the two countries speak.

When the Baltimore Orioles played the Cuban national team in 1999, a group of older Cuban men approached American reporters and wondered if we'd brought along a photo of America's biggest star -- Mark McGwire.

They'd heard about his 70-homer season, but they hadn't been allowed to see his photo. What does he look like? What does he sound like? Manfred brought along Derek Jeter and Dave Winfield, who gave Cuban fans the opportunity to see American icons for themselves.

It was a day of such joy and goodwill, and we can hope it's contagious, that it's a message. Baseball has had the power to knock down walls in the past. Maybe it can help do that again.