Obama: 'Power of baseball' to change attitudes

March 23rd, 2016

An American president visiting Cuba walked into a ballpark in Havana on Tuesday afternoon, and a unique chapter of history unfolded. With baseball as a fitting backdrop, two countries that long have considered the sport a vibrant part of their cultures shared moments that simply haven't been possible for more than a half-century.

Waving to the appreciative crowd as he entered Estadio Latinoamericano, President Barack Obama -- making the first visit to Cuba by a U.S. president in 88 years -- took his seat next to President Raul Castro of Cuba and both watched the exhibition between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, won by the Rays, 4-1.

As part of his policy to work toward normalizing relations with the long-isolated island nation so near to the U.S. shores, Obama made a three-day visit to Cuba, and he made watching a baseball game the final stop on that trip.

:: Complete coverage: Historic Cuba visit ::

"Ultimately, what this game is about is goodwill and recognition that people are people," Obama said in an in-game interview on ESPN, which broadcast the historic game. "But we can't forget that there are larger stakes involved in this."

To that end, Obama spoke earlier in the day to dissidents who had been imprisoned for their political beliefs, and he made a speech that was broadcast on Cuban television calling for an end to the Cold War rivalry. Then he got into baseball mode, changing into a white collared shirt and khakis for his trip to the ballpark.

Wearing sunglasses as he entered the seating area, Obama shook hands with Hall of Fame player Dave Winfield, in attendance as a representative of the MLB Players Association, and then walked toward his seat, joined by first lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters, Malia and Sasha. Obama also embraced special guest Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson, and introduced her to President Castro, paying tribute to one of the great heroes of change in America.

As Obama discussed in the interview on ESPN, Jackie Robinson made a stop in Havana with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 before he became the first African-American player in the Major Leagues that April, breaking the color barrier and helping lead to many other advances in civil rights.

"I've said before, that's the power of baseball. That's the power of sports," Obama said. "It can change attitudes sometimes in ways a politician can never change, 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."

Acknowledging there is still a long way to go, including in sports like baseball, Obama said America's effort to move away from racial divides is an example for Cuba because it shows a capacity to change.

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"And Jackie Robinson represents the very best of that change," he said.

Obama's day in Havana also included speaking with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel about the terrorist attack in Brussels, and he and Castro stood side by side in a moment of silence when the announcement came over the stadium loudspeakers, first in Spanish and then in English: "At this sporting event, a symbol of peace, we condemn the acts of terrorism in Belgium."

Asked later by ESPN's Karl Ravech whether he considered not attending the baseball game after the attack in Belgium, Obama said, "It's always a challenge when you have a terrorist act anywhere in the world, particularly in this age of 24/7 news coverage. You want to be respectful and understand the gravity of the situation. But the whole premise of terrorism is to try to disrupt people's ordinary lives.

"One of my most powerful memories and one of my proudest moments as president was watching Boston respond after the marathon. And when [Red Sox slugger David Ortiz] went out and said -- probably about the only time America didn't have a problem with someone cursing on live TV was when he talked about Boston and how strong it was and how it was not going to be intimidated, and that is the kind of resilience and the kind of strength we have to continue to show in the face of these terrorists."

There was no question the Rays players appreciated the fact that Obama was at the baseball game, which was historic in its own right. The players came over to his seats just prior to the game, and he shook hands with each of them through the protective screen behind home plate. Chris Archer spent a little extra time there as he delivered the gift of a glove from starting pitcher Matt Moore, who was warming up and couldn't greet the president.

In their front-row seats, the Obamas showed their appreciation for the national anthems sung by a white-clad choir on the field before the game and got into the action during the game, the first lady, in particular, demonstrative about a wide strike zone.

When the Rays scored the first run of the game, Obama made a few playful gestures with Castro, and Castro shook his hand. Obama later took some playful jabs from ESPN commentator Eduardo Perez about his baseball skills, based on his performances in first-pitch ceremonies.

"We do a lot of tough stuff as president, and by definition you don't end up being president if you don't handle stress well," Obama said. "Nothing is more stressful than throwing out a first pitch."

In the in-game interview, Obama talked about his favorite team, the Chicago White Sox, and professed a support for baseball's pace-of-play initiatives, which he said he discussed with Castro.

With the interview complete, Obama took a selfie with Perez, chatted with Derek Jeter, Robinson and Winfield, and shook hands with some Cuban fans to a round of applause as he exited through a tunnel. In a venue that couldn't have been imagined even a year ago, never mind the last 50-plus years, the U.S. president had shared a ballgame with the Cuban president, also sharing his appreciation for the pastime that brought two nations together again on the field.

"In some ways, at a time in our lives when everything's going a mile a minute, and kids are on their phones all the time, and there's just this constant stream of information, there's nothing like going to a ballpark," Obama said. "Just everything's slowing down and the rhythm of the game just gives you an appreciation about all the blessings we have. It's still a family game in a way that's really hard to match."