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Can baseball bring U.S. and Cuba together?

"Pingpong diplomacy" thawed relations between the United States and China in 1971. Can "baseball diplomacy" help do the same for the U.S. and Cuba?
Cuba US Baseball
Supporters cheer for Cuba's Santos baseball team during a friendly baseball game against U.S.' Twin State Peregrino at the Penalver convent in Havana. Javier Galeano / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

"Pingpong diplomacy" thawed relations between the United States and China in 1971. Can "baseball diplomacy" help do the same for the U.S. and Cuba?

Americans ranging from 12-year-old ballplayers to softballing senior citizens are visiting the communist island to engage in their own kind of field work, and there's talk of another trip by a major league team.

These bat-and-ball initiatives come as the Obama administration takes steps toward improving relations with the Cold War rival, such as loosening financial and travel restrictions on Americans with relatives on the island.

"I think it would be good," said former World Series MVP Livan Hernandez, who defected from Cuba in the 1990s. "I want to come back to my own country. I miss my family, I miss my friends. I think it's time to do something like that."

Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who staged exhibition games with the Cuban national team in Havana and Baltimore a decade ago, told The Associated Press that he hopes to so again next spring. Two groups of baseball youngsters from Florida are planning to visit next year as well.

This weekend, four teams from a Massachusetts slow-pitch softball senior league will travel to Cuba for a series of games. They're taking equipment, uniforms and pins for the Cuban players with them.

"It's got to help diplomacy. Sports does that," said Stu Gray, commissioner of the Eastern Massachusetts Senior Softball Association and head of this weekend's delegation. The association has designed a logo for the trip featuring U.S. and Cuban flags crossing over a softball.

Change in the air?
Baseball enthusiasts feel the time is right for this type of outreach. In September, the U.S. sent a senior diplomat to Havana for unannounced meetings with Cuban officials — believed to be the highest-level talks between the two nations in decades. And last month, Cuba's foreign minister said his country is willing to hold talks with the United States "on any level."

If Angelos gets his way, next spring his Orioles will play in Cuba, as well as host the Cuban national team, in a repeat of the exhibition games staged in 1999 during the Clinton administration. He said he decided to do so now because of the Obama administration's overtures toward Cuba.

"Hopefully as next spring approaches, both governments will see clearer to improve the relations and make it rather easy for there to be a reciprocal arrangement," said Angelos, a prolific Democratic donor. "Personally, I think the relations between the two countries should be clearly and emphatically re-established."

Angelos said there have been informal talks with the U.S. government about sending his team to Cuba next year, but he hasn't heard back yet. The Treasury Department would have to approve.

"The basic question is, does baseball have the ability to transcend conflict, and the answer is yes," said Harvey Schiller, the outgoing president of the International Baseball Federation, which spearheaded an unsuccessful attempt to make baseball an Olympic sport for the 2016 Summer Games. "Baseball has been a bridge between the two countries in a way that I don't think you've seen in many other sports."

'A great equalizer'
Steve Bull, once an aide to President Richard Nixon, oversaw the visit of the Chinese table tennis team to the White House Rose Garden in 1972, following the U.S. team's trip to China the year before. He said that baseball diplomacy could offer a parallel story line.

"The more that Cubans and other people see Americans — who are fundamentally good people — the better our formal governmental relations can be," he said. "Sport is a great equalizer, it's a great means of overcoming political barriers."

John Carey, a political science professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., was one of the coaches who led a group of 11- and 12-year-old baseball players from New Hampshire and Vermont on a trip to Cuba last year. None of the American kids spoke Spanish, Carey said, but they bonded with the Cubans through playing, looking at baseball cards together, hanging out and eating sandwiches after the game.

"Their impression of Cuba was, we might as well have been going to Mars," Carey recalled. "They had no idea what to expect. We get there, and the kids play baseball, and you immediately have that bond. ... All of a sudden, the idea of Cuba as this incredibly distant place evaporated for them."

John Parke Wright IV, a Florida businessman who does cattle business with Cuba, helped organize last year's trip, and he's now putting together another one for next spring with baseball youth from Tampa and Key Biscayne. Wright is an outspoken critic of the embargo, which bans most trade between the two countries but allows some sales of U.S. agricultural products.

"Baseball is sacred, both for Americans and Cubans. We're talking about the holy grail here," said Wright, who estimated he's donated 500 gloves to Cuban youths over the years. "This is something that no politician can mess up. This is baseball. Therefore, any bond that can be built on it in the future, we already have the bridge, now we just have to be able to play ball."