MLB wraps 'exhilarating' goodwill trip to Cuba
HAVANA -- Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw had been off the charter bus that brought an MLB contingent from a youth baseball clinic in the city of Matanzas back to the most famous corner in Havana's Central Park for less than 10 minutes, and he was stumped.
He smiled and waved his hands in the shadows of the trees and Spanish colonial-style buildings around him, but he couldn't think of any more names.
"There's Andrew McCutchen, Paul Goldschmidt," he said. "Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt de los Arizona Diamondbacks y Bryce Harper. Harper de los Nacionales. Um, um ...
"They love baseball and they grilled me on an American lineup, but I couldn't quite name it all, but I got a few through," Kershaw said. "They said the Cuban team would wipe us out. "
Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera was a few feet away in a similar predicament. He was laughing and trying think of an all-star lineup from his home country of Venezuela that would match up with a team of Cuban all-stars. In between cell-phone photos with fans, Seattle's Nelson Cruz defended the prowess of baseball in the Dominican Republic, his home country.
Welcome to Havana's Esquina Caliente -- the "hot corner." It's located near the statue of Cuban national hero Jose Marti in Parque Central in Old Havana, and it's the spot where Cubans have gathered to discuss baseball and politics for years. It was a fitting landmark to end the three-day goodwill tour of the island organized by Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association.
MLB and its future on the island was the topic of conversation this week in Cuba, and it will be for the foreseeable future.
The Cuban-born players on the trip -- Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena and free-agent infielder Alexei Ramirez -- did not visit Esquina Caliente, instead choosing to spend time with their families. San Diego outfielder Jon Jay, who is of Cuban descent, stayed back in Matanzas, located 50 minutes east of Havana, to connect with family members.
But the hot corner was not reserved for players only. Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, now MLB's chief baseball officer, was in the middle of the action at Esquina Caliente. He'll always be known as the Yankees manager to some fans in Cuba, and one fan was so excited to see him that she rushed up and gave him a big kiss on the cheek.
Joe Torres, as he was affectionately called all week, was definitely a fan favorite in Cuba.
"It was exhilarating. That is the only word I can use," Torre said. "We have not gotten much sleep and we've stayed busy, and yet you are excited to start the next day. The experience has been much more than you could have ever expected, and everything was so positive. It really was."
MLB's goodwill tour to Cuba opened with a news conference Tuesday at Hotel Nacional followed by youth baseball clinics at Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano on Wednesday and Estadio Victoria de Giron in Matanzas on Thursday. The group toured the city, ate at the iconic El Floridita restaurant in old Havana and participated in charity event in conjunction with Caritas Cubana, a U.S.-based non-governmental provider of humanitarian, social and emergency services to the island.
"There are no words to describe how happy I am and what this has felt like," said Abreu, who was reunited with his five-year-old son for the first time in almost three years. "I'm really grateful for all of the people that made it possible to return to Cuba. "
The mission of the goodwill tour was to learn more about Cuba while bridging the gap between the countries using baseball. The U.S. and Cuba continue to seek normalized relations. Baseball is also searching for a safe way to get Cuban players to the Major Leagues.
"It's important that we are here and an important symbolic step," said Dan Halem, MLB's chief legal officer. "I think the better you get to know people, the easier it is to work out issues with them. But in terms of the system issues, and even the business issues of playing the game here, it will take some time to work out.
"I think there is a desire, certainly on the part of Major League Baseball, and the Cuban Baseball Federation, and hopefully the governments of the two countries, to at least make things easier for Cuban players to play in the Major Leagues and go back," Halem continued. "No matter what your viewpoint, I think everybody in both countries agrees that human trafficking is really bad and having baseball players, or any Cubans, having to risk their lives or put themselves in danger to pursue their profession is not a good situation."
There's still plenty of work to be done. The U.S. government began implementing a trade embargo in 1960 and broke off diplomatic ties with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961. In June, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S and Cuba will restore full diplomatic relations and open embassies in an effort to normalize relations.
Defection -- either abandoning a national team during an international tournament or late-night escapes -- remains the primary way for players to make it to the big leagues since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
"This encounter that we've had, this new relationship that we're starting to foster, between the Cuban Baseball Federation and Major League Baseball and the Players Association, gives us an indication of things we need to do now and into the future," said Antonio Castro, the son of Fidel and a top official with the Cuban Baseball Federation. "We're conscious of what baseball means. What we've experienced today, and what we've experienced these last couple of days, is very exciting. For the kids who are there participating with Major League stars, for the Cuban players who were stars here in their country, this exchange is very important and it's important for them to share a baseball field with these kids."
The next step could be only a few months away. MLB and the MLBPA are exploring the idea of Spring Training games in Havana in March. The Rays were chosen in a lottery in November, giving them the opportunity, if a deal can be finalized, to play two exhibition games in Cuba.
"To be able to be here and have the opportunity to give back through the game and to have the opportunity to be around young people and enjoy the experience that is Cuban baseball has been a privilege and a pleasure," said MLBPA executive director Tony Clark. "We are very thankful for the opportunity to have been here and we are very hopeful that this is the first of many opportunities to come back and enjoy Cuban baseball."