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Angels Bid to Be 1st in Years to Play in Cuba

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Angels are lining up to play an exhibition game in Cuba next year, bidding to become the first major league team in 53 years to play on an island packed with some of baseball’s most passionate fans and most talented players.

The Angels have applied to the U.S. Treasury Department for the license that would allow club officials to travel to Cuba and negotiate terms of a game against its national team or a team of all-stars next year, a department spokesman confirmed Tuesday.

The Baltimore Orioles already have received such a license, but red tape has fouled their travel plans. The New York Yankees might apply too. The Angels--and their owners, the Walt Disney Co.--want to take the first step back to a country last visited by a major-league team when the Brooklyn Dodgers batted there in 1947.

“This will be important for baseball, whatever team is first to play there,” said Cuban native Preston Gomez, 75, special assistant to Angel General Manager Bill Bavasi.

“Maybe if they allowed players to come to the U.S. and go back to Cuba to play in the Olympics and the Pan American Games, the players would be better off.”

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Cuban leader Fidel Castro, a pretty fair left-handed pitcher in his day, might relish the chance to see Cuban stars test their skill against major leaguers, but he has offered no indication he would lift the ban against Cubans pursuing careers in the major leagues.

The Cuban government forbids players from signing with major league teams, and any exhibition games would essentially be charity fund-raisers.

“The stadium in Havana holds 60,000 people, but if they had a 120,000-seat stadium, they’d fill it,” said Gomez, who was raised in the Cuban province of Oriente and has worked in major league baseball as a player, coach and scout for 55 years.

“This would get the two governments connected. I’ve always said people connected with sports can do more than politicians.”

Cubans Stung by Recent Defections

The Cuban national team ranks as the world’s premier amateur team but has been stung by a rash of recent defections, including those of the most valuable player of the 1997 World Series, Florida Marlins pitcher Livan Hernandez, and his half-brother, Yankee pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez.

If Cuban players were allowed to play in the majors, Gomez said, there would be as many major leaguers from Cuba in 10 years as there are now from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Roughly 20% of the 1,200 big league players are from Latin America.

“And all the players who make good money here, if they were allowed to go back to Cuba, they would invest it there,” said Gomez, who visits his brother in Cuba every winter. “I hope people who fled Cuba can go back and see their family and friends. I hope in my lifetime I see that happen.”

The Orioles received a license to negotiate with Cuban officials last month, soon after President Clinton announced a series of humanitarian exceptions to the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. However, hopes for the Orioles to participate in any exhibition games this spring have all but evaporated. The regular season starts in six weeks, but talks have broken down over which charities would handle proceeds from the games.

The U.S. government wants Catholic charities to administer and distribute the money within Cuba. The Cuban government wishes to send the money to Central American victims of Hurricane Mitch, but Washington refuses to allow Castro’s regime to handle any proceeds, even as a middleman.

With the Orioles still stymied by diplomatic jousting, time is running critically short to arrange a game that would require massive planning to accommodate politicians, fans and media from around the world. If the Orioles cannot reach an agreement that is satisfactory to Washington and Havana, the Cuban government could open negotiations with the Angels for an exhibition series next year.

The Yankees might also enter the race. While the Yankees have not yet applied to the Treasury Department for permission to visit, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) has broached the idea with Yankee owner George Steinbrenner and Cuban deputy foreign minister Fernando Ramirez, according to the Washington Times.

The Cuban initiative may fit into the Angels’ strategy to market the team more heavily among Latino fans, although many Cuban Americans in Florida have opposed exhibition games and other overtures to Cuba, humanitarian or otherwise, so long as Castro remains in power.

The Angels announced Monday that they will host an exhibition game April 3 against Aguascalientes, the first time a Mexican League team will play in a major-league stadium. The Angels also have expanded Latin American scouting efforts under the Disney regime, pouring resources into searching for talented players in Mexico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.


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