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Nadel relishes rich baseball culture in Cuba

Legendary broadcaster meets with locals and legends on island

ARLINGTON -- Rangers broadcaster Eric Nadel has always had a passion for Latin American baseball and culture, which helps explain why he is fluent in Spanish.

It also explains why he was in Cuba in December when President Barack Obama announced steps toward normalizing relations and easing the embargo between the United States and the island nation just 90 miles south of Florida.

"The Cubans were ecstatic," Nadel said. "There was not exactly dancing in the street, but there was lots of horn honking, and boisterous crowds gathered. Some mistakenly felt that this meant the immediate end of the embargo, while others realized that this is just a significant first step in that direction.

"Look, this is not the Berlin Wall coming down. For now it's just a beginning. The symbolism of the renewed relations, however, was not lost on anyone. The Cuban people see our people as their friend, even though our governments have been adversaries. They welcomed the official recognition of that friendship. I shared hugs and toasts with many Cuban friends and strangers on the day of the announcement."

Nadel was in Cuba as part of a government-sanctioned tour that allowed a group of American baseball fans to see the homeland of Rangers center fielder Leonys Martin and other Major League stars. With the assistance from Insight Cuba, they crafted an itinerary of baseball related events as well as cultural visits.

There were 18 people in all in the tour from all across the country, led by both a bilingual American and Cuban tour guide. They visited three different cities, attended baseball games on youth levels as well as the Cuban Major League games known as the National Series.

"What fascinates me most about Cuba is their [unique] world in which hotel maids make more money off tips than doctors earn and people somehow survive on state salaries that average less than $20 a month," Nadel said. "Cubans receive food rations from the government to make sure that nobody starves, but almost everyone is poor, including baseball players and announcers, doctors and other professionals. Despite all that, the Cuban people are eager to share what little they have with American visitors."

Asked what he enjoyed the most about Cuba, Nadel said, "The spirit of the people ... their determination to overcome all of the obstacles in their way. And of course, the baseball and the music."

Nadel's love of music is well-known, so it is not surprising that he took in the local scene nightly at the local jazz and salsa clubs as well Submarino Amarillo, a Rock and Roll joint where a Cuban band did a terrific cover of "We're an American Band."

"Cuba is a music lover's paradise," Nadel said.

Nadel and his tour still found time to take in some baseball. There was much to savor on the baseball-mad island.

The National Series is made up of 16 teams with each of Cuba's 15 provinces represented. Most players play for the province they are from, and the Havana Industriales are the Yankees of Cuba. Nadel said fans either love them or hate them.

According to STATS Inc., there have been 185 players born on the island who have played in the Major Leagues going back to 1911. The island became especially popular after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 and the Washington Senators were among the first teams to scout the island heavily. A number of great players were signed in the 1950s and early '60s, a list that includes Tony Perez, Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva, Bert Campaneris and many others.

The flow stopped after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the United States imposed the embargo that is still in place. Former Rangers Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro were both born in Cuba, but for three decades, the island's baseball legacy was enriched mainly through domination in world amateur tournaments like the Olympics and the Pan American Games.

But that started to change in the mid-1990s when pitchers Livan and Orlando Hernandez were among those who defected and came to the United States. Now, Cuban players are found all across the big leagues.

"I have been to many Latin American countries and Cuba's passion for baseball is comparable to what I have seen in the Dominican Republic," Nadel said. "One of the greatest aspects of baseball in Cuba is that it affords people a chance to speak openly and freely, even if they are in disagreement with the state-run authorities that select the national team and run the National Series.

"The first Cuban talk radio show in which people could say anything they want without fear of reprisal, Deportivamente, a sports talk show, continues to be one of Cuba's most popular radio shows."

Not all of Cuba's best players have come to the United States. Omar Linares, who played third base on two Olympic gold medal-winning teams in 1992 and '96, may be the greatest player in Cuba's history and still resides on the island. He is a part-time coach and baseball ambassador, and Nadel got the chance to meet him.

"He presented me with a signed jersey as a celebration of my Hall of Fame award this year, Nadel said. "He was the Cuban baseball great I most wanted to meet, so this was something of a dream come true."

The National Series is still going strong despite the increasing number of defections. Depending on the importance of the game relative to the standings, crowds of 40,000 or more feverish fans are common.

Youth games are also well-attended. The leagues are similar to the United States, although the fields are often in poor condition and it is difficult to acquire equipment.

"I spoke to a lady who designs and manufactures youth league uniforms in her house," Nadel said. "She sells them for $22 apiece. That's more than the monthly salary of the average Cuban. She said that many of the parents save up for years to be able to buy their son a uniform."

This is the way it has been in Cuba for the past five decades, but now there is the possibility of change in the future if improved relations with the United States do come to pass.

"Right now there will be little or no impact, although as economic conditions in Cuba improve, hopefully fewer Cuban players will feel the need to leave their country to play in the U.S.," Nadel said. "If President Obama's move leads to a normalization of trade, then the impact would be great. Conceivably, Cuban players would come to the big leagues using a posting system similar to that used by Japanese teams. And Cuban players would be free to return to Cuba to play in their league in the winter and to represent Cuba in the World Baseball Classic and other international tournaments."

After his visit to Cuba, Nadel said he is in favor of the changes being implemented by Obama.

"Let me say first that I feel deeply for the many Cuban-American families who have been divided and suffered the loss of family members as well as money and possessions because of the brutal Castro regime," Nadel said. "But let's face it, however well-intentioned it may have been, the embargo just hasn't worked. It has not caused regime change in Cuba. It never will. It has, however, inflicted undue harm upon the Cuban people, who struggle to achieve an adequate standard of living."

Nadel said the Cuban people have nothing against Americans. "In fact they love us," Nadel said. "They crave Americanism. The least we can do is to help make it easier for them to get food, clothes, medicine, personal hygiene products. We should do all we can to help the new private businesses in Cuba thrive. The less dependent they are on their government for life's essentials, the less control the government will have over them.

"This is a strategy that worked in Eastern Europe, and it can work in Cuba, too."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger.
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