How soon until MLB-affiliated baseball returns to Cuba?
Not since mid-1960, when the Havana Sugar Kings played in the International League as a Cincinnati Reds affiliate, has the island nation had a true connection to Major League Baseball.
The New York Times posted an intriguing feature Saturday about the efforts of longtime minor-league baseball executive Lou Schwechheimer to bring minor league baseball back to Cuba. Not since the middle of the 1960 season, in the early months of Fidel Castro's revolutionary administration, had Cuba been connected officially to Major League Baseball.
A year before in 1959, the Havana Sugar Kings won the International League as the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. Preston Gomez was the manager. Future Cy Young winner Mike Cuellar was the ace. Leo Cardenas and Cookie Rojas played on the infield. Luis Arroyo was the top reliever. As history tells us, political relations between the U.S. and Cuban government quickly deteriorated and, while baseball in Cuba continues, all official ties with MLB were cut in 1961.
Schwechheimer might be, perhaps, two or three years from restoring them. Dan Barry in the Times writes:
“This is the moment in time,” Schwechheimer said. “And we’re closing in on it.”
But Schwechheimer faces a few daunting obstacles, said Juan A. Triana, a professor of economics at the University of Havana. For one, the “vertical permission” structure of Cuban bureaucracy can be exhausting, he said. For another, some hard-liners here have little interest in restoring ties with the United States.
“It must be done step by step,” Triana said. “It could take one year, two years, three years.”
This was Schwechheimer’s fifth trip to Cuba, and many others are planned, including one next month. His patient confidence, he said, comes from believing that baseball is the "common denominator" in the Cuban-American equation, as well as from the directive he has received in meetings with State Department officials: "Be bold and engage."
Such ambitious projections were unthinkable before U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro announced joint plans in December to restore full diplomatic ties. But the truth is, Schwechheimer has spent the past "dozen years" working on bringing a minor league team back to Havana, as he concurrently worked as vice president and general manager of the Pawtucket Red Sox. He recently left the PawSox after 37 seasons, ascending from intern to the top.
Schwechheimer's group has purchased a controlling interest in two minor league franchises and a piece of a third, though none among the New Orleans Zephyrs, Charlotte (Fla.) Stone Crabs or the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees will be moved to Cuba. Still, any of the teams could be used in a number of "good-will initiatives." Those include:
[P]laying a Class AAA all-star game in Havana, providing much-needed baseball equipment, and sponsoring seminars on training and conditioning.
But he also said, "We have the financial resources to acquire additional minor league teams, one of which may ultimately wind up in Havana — but only at the appropriate time."
Aside from a number of individual defectors going to the U.S., along with a handful of games played by Cuban teams against teams with major leaguers, the two baseball societies haven't had much to do with each other over the past six decades. Unless a greater history intervenes and scuttles his plans, it will take only time for MLB to return to Cuba, thanks in large part to Lou Schwechheimer.
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