A Pitch Is Framed by Diplomacy in Cuba

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Lou Schwechheimer, leader of the Caribbean Baseball Initiative, playing catcher in a game with children at Finca Vigía, where Ernest Hemingway lived. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

A minibus of Americans rumbled through a city in transformation, past the run-down housing and round-the-clock construction, the sparsely stocked bodegas and chic new restaurants, to a reception at the residence of the American chargés d’affaires. The hint of change teased the November night.

A few guests wore golf shirts embroidered with the brand names of sodas and snacks and auto parts. But the business of these men arriving by bus, all in dark suits or blazers, was of a different order: to have a major league team’s minor league affiliate based in Havana, perhaps as early as 2017.

Their plan was freighted with history. It would restore the professional baseball bond once shared by two countries long at odds, but it would be possible only in accordance with United States law and, these men insisted, with the full participation of Cuba.

In other words, when the time was right. But, as the common sight of a driver talking on a cellphone while in a 1950s-era Chevy suggests, time moves differently here.

More than half a century has passed since the Havana Sugar Kings, a Cincinnati Reds affiliate, played in the Class AAA International League. Since the giddy gunfire of followers of the revolutionary Fidel Castro grazed a shortstop and a third-base coach at a game against the Rochester Red Wings. Since Havana won the 1959 Little World Series against the Minneapolis Millers here at home.

The notion of returning to those days, absent the gunfire, may sound like pie in the sky, given the longstanding American embargo against Cuba. But President Obama and the Cuban president, Raúl Castro, announced plans last December to restore full diplomatic ties — a first hesitant step toward normalizing relations — and some see a chance for an exemption from the embargo: a baseball “carve-out.”

What’s more, this group’s enthusiastic leader, a veteran minor league executive named Lou Schwechheimer, has spent the last dozen years preparing for just such a moment.

He has secured the exclusive rights from Minor League Baseball to return professional baseball to Havana. He has assembled this group, called the Caribbean Baseball Initiative, which includes two highly regarded former American ambassadors. He has obtained the necessary licensing from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. He has raised considerable capital.

And, very quietly, he has built a baseball empire.

As of this month, the Caribbean Baseball Initiative owns controlling interests in the New Orleans Zephyrs, a Miami Marlins franchise in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League, and the Charlotte Stone Crabs, a Tampa Bay Rays franchise in the Class A Florida State League. The group also holds a minority interest in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, a Yankees franchise in the International League.

None of these teams will be moved to Cuba, Schwechheimer said, although they may figure in various good-will initiatives he has in mind, including playing 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.”

Until that appropriate time, Schwechheimer and his associates plan to continue their minibus missions to Cuba, listening, explaining and seeking a partner in a joint baseball venture.

“But only thoughtfully, respectfully and when Cuba is willing,” he said. “We’re not going to be the ugly Americans.”

Looking to Past, and Future

Schwechheimer’s Cuban mission sprang from a long-ago gathering of baseball lifers, swapping stories over drinks. A particularly informed hot stove league, you might say.

In Havana minor league baseball was once a part of the culture. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

It was at professional baseball’s 2002 fall gathering in Tampa, Fla., and Schwechheimer, then a 45-year-old executive and part owner of the Pawtucket Red Sox, found himself with, among others, Frank Verdi, the third-base coach once winged by a bullet, and Harold Cooper, a onetime president of the International League, who began his career during the Depression, wiping the mold from a ballpark’s hot dogs with a vinegar rag.

As they recalled the days when Havana was part of minor league baseball — the high level of play, the passion of the fans, the Sugar Kings — one of the men, George Steinbrenner, challenged the young Schwechheimer to return Havana to the fold.

Schwechheimer accepted. Soon he was sharing his vision with advisers at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where he was studying. Soon he was the keynote speaker at a conference in Havana, delivering a paper titled “Your Baseball Stadium: A Front Porch to Havana and an Economic Development Opportunity for Cuba.”

Since then, he has dedicated himself to having the International League once again live up to its name — a goal made all the more possible with Obama’s surprise and daring announcement last December to “begin a new chapter” with Cuba.

“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.”

For five days, the men on the minibus kept to a crowded schedule of meetings with top-level American and Cuban officials, interrupted here and there with arranged moments of baseball good will.

They spent a good part of their time peering through tinted glass at the evolving Havana panorama: the New World utilitarian building blocks and crumbling Old World structures, the Che Guevara silhouettes and the restaurants with valet service, the northward view of the sea along the boulevard called the Malecón, toward Florida, 90 miles away.

All the while, their mantra was “respectful engagement,” with a side of “tranquilo.”

With Schwechheimer were a Rhode Island financier, a university professor of sports management, a veteran minor league executive, and three members of the Cohen Group, a high-voltage consultancy firm in Washington: Tommy Goodman, a Spanish-fluent lawyer who handled the trip’s every detail, and two legendary American statesmen.

One, Marc Grossman, a former ambassador to Turkey, retired in 2005 as the State Department’s third-ranking official, serving as the undersecretary of state for political affairs. In 2011, Obama called the retired Grossman into temporary service as a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He roots for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The other, Jeffrey Davidow, has been the ambassador to Mexico, Venezuela and Zambia, as well as the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. He retired in 2003 as career ambassador, the Foreign Service’s highest position, which, by law, can be held by no more than five people at a time.

He follows the Boston Red Sox.

An Emphasis on Patience

The two Foreign Service veterans had learned long ago how to hear what was not being said, how to deconstruct a handshake, how to deftly use the tool of time. They understood the value of patience.

For example, on the group’s first night in Havana, Schwechheimer treated several Cuban friends to dinner. He mentioned in passing that he would someday like to share his baseball plans with Antonio Castro, an orthopedic surgeon, one of the country’s most prominent baseball officials — and a son of Fidel.

It was quickly intimated that such a meeting was possible. The next night, one of Schwechheimer’s dinner guests, a former Cuban legislator, invited the Americans to the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba. There they were introduced with some pomp to the hotel’s manager, who said he would provide a private room for the meeting on the day it happened.

Then the American entourage was led into a small theater to watch a long cabaret performance that seemed lifted from a 1940s MGM musical. Every so often the legislator would raise his hand, and bottles of Cristal beer, bowls of olives and trays of cured ham would appear.

For the rest of the five-day trip, a meeting with Antonio Castro seemed imminent. There were periodic cellphone calls to Goodman to stand by, prompting the American visitors to change out of casual clothes and into suits and ties. All the while, the two former ambassadors kept their expectations low.

The meeting never took place, further underscoring the sense that not all is what it seems in Cuba.

But Schwechheimer was unperturbed. A chat with Castro was never part of the original schedule. Besides, the group was already making headway in substantive meetings with Cuban officials in the ministries of culture and sports — as well as with the Cuban Baseball Federation, which governs the sport — and this would not be its last trip.

“Tranquilo,” Schwechheimer said. “We’ll be back.”

Besides, the visitors had more than enough to do in trying to navigate the decades-old distrust between the two countries, even in the limited sphere of baseball.

There is the Cuban resentment over the continuing and often risky defections of its ballplayers, including some of the top stars. Many believe this baseball drain has led to a decline in the quality of play in their country’s amateur games and on the national team.

There is also the thorny matter of compensation. Given the embargo, Cuba receives nothing when a defecting ballplayer, like Yoenis Cespedes or Yasiel Puig, signs a multimillion-dollar contract with a major league team, which is not the case when a Cuban plays in, say, Japan or South Korea.

The two countries, along with Major League Baseball, have been working to resolve the matter. Antonio Castro told ESPN last year that the current arrangement, which effectively forces Cuban ballplayers to sever ties with their native country, was “crazy,” but he also allowed that Cuba “has to budge” on the matter.

Once these issues are resolved — perhaps through an exemption to the embargo — Schwechheimer expects to be at the front of the line, offering affordable family entertainment, as well as jobs, to Havana. And, yes, Cuban ballplayers would be welcome to play in these minor league games — if they made the roster.

Schwechheimer said his group was not lobbying to change Cuban or American law. Its mission, he said, is to present its motives as honorable should Cuba someday say yes to the possibility of a minor league franchise, and to celebrate, through gestures of good will, the commonality found through a game.

“What Lou’s trying to do makes sense,” Davidow said. “It more than makes sense. It’s a good thing.”

Baseball’s Complex Role

To that end, the group gravitated toward various baseball-centric places in and around Havana. This is not difficult, given the game’s hold on the country, where baseball souvenirs are for sale at an open market in Old Havana, and black-and-white photographs of legendary Cuban ballplayers hang in a high-end, museumlike restaurant called San Cristobal Paladar.

Still, the growing popularity of soccer in Cuba was evident everywhere, especially on television. At one point, the minibus passed a soccer game being played on a baseball field, and someone half-joked, “The enemy.”

In addition, baseball remains intertwined with the complex diplomatic and political realities of Cuba, as evidenced by the reluctance of Cuban and American officials to discuss it.

A State Department official said in an email that the American Embassy in Havana was aware of the efforts by private institutions like the Caribbean Baseball Initiative to increase ties between the two countries, and described baseball as “an excellent avenue for sports diplomacy and creating good will between our peoples.”

The official wrote, “The connections that our countries already have in baseball create a common bond, and the increased flow of players and friendly competition furthers the U.S. goal of enhancing opportunities for the Cuban people.”

Officials for the Cuban Baseball Federation declined to speak on the record, and a request for comment from the Cuban Embassy was not answered. It was left, then, to a Cuban ballplayer to speak.

The player, Carlos Tabares, 41, is a star veteran for the Havana Industriales, the tradition-steeped Yankees of Cuban baseball. The stocky Tabares was found one day working out with a group of aspiring young players, his shirt sweat-soaked and grass-flecked after a series of sprints.

He has had many teammates in his 24-year career, including two defectors who played in the 2015 World Series: Cespedes, of the Mets, and Kendrys Morales of the Kansas City Royals.

Tabares said he was happy for both men. Although sad to see his good friend Cespedes leave, he said he rejoiced in hearing of his former teammate’s success at the major league level.

“I had many proposals myself when I was in my 20s,” Tabares said, perspiration beading on his shaved head. “But I would never do that to my family. What I would have lost for the major

leagues. …”

As for the prospect of minor league baseball one day returning to Havana, Tabares said he welcomed it, of course.

“It has to be that way,” he said.

One day the American baseball ambassadors were given a tour of Estadio Latinoamericano, home to the Industriales. In the bowels of that worn 70-year-old stadium were pieces of Cuba’s baseball past: a marble tablet engraved with the names of “Inmortales del BaseBall”; the busts of two legends, Martín Dihigo and Adolfo Luque; a wall-size painting of Fidel Castro, in military fatigues, standing at the plate, bat in hand.

The Cuban baseball officials leading the tour allowed that they would one day like to build a hall of fame. Well, Schwechheimer responded, perhaps the Caribbean Baseball Initiative could help with that.

Another day, the minibus of Americans made a pilgrimage to Finca Vigía, the hilltop house where Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote — and carved a crude baseball field among mango trees, so that his two sons and children from the area could play the game he loved. Often he would pitch to the boys, who were called the Gigi All-Stars.

Some new all-stars, young members of a local Little League team, were taking batting practice while waiting for their American visitors. Schwechheimer bounded out of the bus, grabbed a glove and assumed the role of catcher.

For a little while, other matters were set aside. The logistics for the next trip. The plans for more meetings with top officials, including Antonio Castro. The challenge of getting past the diplomatic impediments, the bureaucratic obstacles, the more than half-century of mutual suspicion.

For a little while, before the rains came and the minibus of Americans left for the next appointment, the scrawny Minnie Minosos and Tony Olivas and Yasiel Puigs of the future smacked balls into the mango trees, and the former ambassador Davidow caught a foul ball in his straw hat, and Schwechheimer presented the boys with dozens of much-needed baseballs. They said “bueno” and “gracias,” but the shared language was this game.

NBCU Scores on Premier League Deal

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HAT TRICK: NBCUniversal’s $950 million extension agreement to air English Premier League soccer through the 2021-2022 season is starting to look like one of the shrewdest deals in media. The Wall Street Journal reports that NBCU didn’t think the agreement would necessarily make money, but rather help round out its stable of sports media properties. But Premier League matches are about the only major sports property in the U.S. showing long-term growth prospects, with matches experiencing a 19% viewership increase over last season thus far (and a 150% increase compared with three years ago). As it happens, the Premier League audience is also one of the youngest among sports properties.

 

NEW LOGO: Speaking of sports, how long before U.S. athletes have the names of big brands splashed on their jerseys as they do in European soccer leagues? Maybe sooner than you think. WSJ reports that the NBA is planning to put a patch with the Kia logo on the upper left chest of players at All-Star games this year and next. It seems like a small promotion, sure, but it marks the first time that a “big four” American league will display a non-apparel logo during a game on a jersey, a space long thought of as sacrosanct.

Coca-Cola, Visa, McDonald’s and Anheuser-Busch Call on FIFA’s Sepp Blatter to Resign

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Four of the top corporate sponsors of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, took coordinated aim at the organization’s president, Sepp Blatter, on Friday, calling for him to resign and labeling him an obstacle to reform.

Mr. Blatter immediately rejected the demands of the four companies — Visa, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Anheuser-Busch InBev — suggesting that FIFA saw the public statements as little more than an idle threat.

“Every day that passes, the image and reputation of FIFA continues to tarnish,” Coca-Cola said in a news release, a sentiment that was quickly amplified in similar statements by the other sponsors. “FIFA needs comprehensive and urgent reform, and that can only be accomplished through a truly independent approach.”

Anheuser-Busch InBev called Mr. Blatter an “obstacle” to reform, and McDonald’s cited diminishing public confidence in his leadership. Visa said, “We believe no meaningful reform can be made under FIFA’s existing leadership.”

“Mr. Blatter respectfully disagrees with its position,” Richard Cullen, Mr. Blatter’s lawyer, said in response to Coca-Cola’s statement, “and believes firmly that his leaving office now would not be in the best interest of FIFA nor would it advance the process of reform and therefore, he will not resign.”

The four sponsors that called for Blatter’s resignation are some of FIFA’s most prominent and longest-serving benefactors. Coca-Cola and Visa are two of FIFA’s five official partners, its highest level of sponsorship, and each has paid tens of millions of dollars to be associated with soccer’s biggest events. Like Coca-Cola, a World Cup sponsor since 1982, McDonald’s and Anheuser-Busch InBev have relationships with FIFA that go back decades.

Mr. Blatter has been FIFA’s president since 1998, but after several top soccer and marketing officials closely linked to FIFA were arrested in May — and only days after he won a fifth term as president — he announced that he would give up his office. He called for a special election to choose his successor; that vote will be held in February.

Top sponsors initially reacted cautiously to the scandal and to Mr. Blatter’s announcement that he would step down, releasing statements that blandly called for more transparency and higher ethical standards. A few statements did not even mention Mr. Blatter.

FIFA was aware of the sponsors’ unhappiness about being connected with yet another ethical scandal involving world soccer’s leadership and said it would meet with the companies’ representatives privately to discuss their concerns. That meeting took place in August; Coca-Cola, Visa, McDonald’s and Anheuser-Busch InBev were among the companies represented.

Last week, however, Swiss authorities announced that they were investigating Mr. Blatter directly for “suspicion of criminal mismanagement and suspicion of misappropriation” of funds. On Sept. 25, a group of officials from the office of Switzerland‘s attorney general arrived at FIFA headquarters in Zurich and, over the next few hours, interrogated Mr. Blatter at length, searched his office and took boxes of documents.

“Given the events of last week,” Visa said Friday, “it’s clear it would be in the best interests of FIFA and the sport for Sepp Blatter to step down immediately.”

Anheuser-Busch InBev went further in calling for Mr. Blatter to step down, saying that “we believe his continued presence to be an obstacle in the reform process.”

The pressure from corporations could make it harder for Mr. Blatter to hold on to FIFA’s presidency until the special election in February. It is unclear what the companies can do other than express their displeasure through public statements like Friday’s announcements and in private meetings with FIFA’s leadership. Contracts bind the companies to FIFA for years, and their long partnerships are a testament to their eagerness to be associated, if not with FIFA, then at least with global events like the World Cup.

In rejecting the calls for his resignation almost as quickly as they were announced, Mr. Blatter might have been signaling that he was prepared to call the sponsors’ bluffs. He also may be counting on FIFA’s ability to replace them if they withdraw their financial support in the future. When two major corporate partners, Sony and Emirates, publicly ended their sponsorship agreements with FIFA last year, the blow was softened by a deal already in place with the Russian energy giant Gazprom.

Still, keeping his post is not entirely Mr. Blatter’s decision. FIFA’s ethics committee could suspend him, at least provisionally, as a result of the Swiss attorney general’s accusations. That was what the committee did to the officials indicted and arrested in May. And last month, Mr. Blatter’s top deputy, the FIFA general secretary Jérôme Valcke, was relieved of his duties after he was accused in an unrelated ethics investigation.

Baseball’s Last Cuban Escapees

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For foreign baseball players hoping to make it in America, just about every conceivable journey — the 1,300 miles from Venezuela, the 5,000 miles from Japan, the 7,000 miles from Australia — has been easier than the 90 short miles from Cuba. That trip, over the last 50 years, has involved almost mythic hardships: improvised rafts, drug lords, ransoms, death threats, forgery, machine guns on the high seas. And yet the Cuban players have come, drawn by the promise of freedom, glory and outrageous capitalist paydays.

From left to right: Onelki Garcia, defected in 2010; Alexei Ramírez, defected in 2007; José Abreu, defected in 2013; Adrián Nieto, defected in 1994; Jorge Soler, defected in 2011; Roberto Baldoquin, defected in 2014; Roenis Elías, defected in 2010.
From left to right: Onelki Garcia, defected in 2010; Alexei Ramírez, defected in 2007; José Abreu, defected in 2013; Adrián Nieto, defected in 1994; Jorge Soler, defected in 2011; Roberto Baldoquin, defected in 2014; Roenis Elías, defected in 2010.

Once upon a time, before Communism, the flow of players was reversed: American stars would migrate south to Cuba’s professional league during the winter in order to stay sharp and make a little extra money. In 1961, however, soon after Fidel Castro rose to power, he turned pro baseball into a highly regulated amateur league. Most of the money drained out; players were forced to play for the love of the game and the glory of the revolution. (As recently as 2013, a typical salary was $17 a month.) They found themselves working in an atmosphere of scarcity, propaganda and constant surveillance.

The first high-profile wave of defectors arrived in the United States in the early 1990s, and after their success — Liván Hernández became a World Series M.V.P., Rey Ordóñez won three straight Gold Gloves — more Cubans followed. Many used international tournaments as escape hatches: They would walk out of a team hotel in Miami or scale a fence in Buffalo, then take refuge with an American cousin or aunt. Just last month, two Cuban players defected after an exhibition game in North Carolina. Escape, however, was often its own form of punishment. Most defectors had to leave without even saying goodbye to their families; the few who received official permission to come to the United States had to leave everything behind. This meant that Cuban players entered the high-pressure world of Major League Baseball in terrible isolation. Great talents, after all that risk, found themselves struggling with loneliness, guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder and the dangers of sudden wealth and fame. Eventually, many of them fizzled out.

Yasiel Puig, the All-Star right fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, tried and failed to leave at least four times before he finally succeeded. Puig hiked for 30 hours, slogged through a crocodile-infested swamp to avoid the police and ended up a prisoner in a Cancún hotel room while rival underworld figures tried to extract money from one another. Even then, his ordeal wasn’t over. When Puig signed a $42 million major-league contract, he had to pay out a portion of it to the smugglers who had helped to extract him. (It seems fitting that Puig’s fantastical story has been optioned for film by the director of one of the X-Men movies.) After dominating the league during his rookie year, Puig suddenly regressed, spending much of this season on the bench.

Taking the critical replies from Makko, melibeo, and RAC seriously, I’m going to do some research on the subject. I just want to acknowledge…

“…to loosen up and celebrate the thawing of a continent.” What a nice way with words. Sometimes a picture isn’t worth more than ten words.

How great would a Cuban MLB expansion team be?Unlike Canadians, Cubans {and maybe Dominicans!} would show up to ball games and could…

The United States’ recent decision to normalize relations with Cuba should, among all its other geopolitical effects, signal the end of this strange cloak-and-dagger era in baseball migration. The next generation of prospects will be greeted not as fugitives but as normal international rookies. This introduction of safety and legality — admirable, necessary, humane — will also nevertheless signal the end of a long tradition of Cuban mystery and romance: the whispered legends that would build around a prospect long before he actually appeared in the flesh, the excitement of his sudden arrival, and then — if we were lucky — the display of exorbitant talent that seemed to push the limits of the sport. Cuban stars have often been flamboyant, demonstrative and a little wild — from the acrobatics of Ordóñez to the time Orlando Hernández, known as El Duque, threw his entire glove to first base to everything having to do with Puig, including his signature celebratory bat flip. (One of Puig’s nicknames is ‘‘The Wild Horse.’’) In the newly regulated future, Cuban players may become, for better and worse, a little more ordinary. They may also become a little less wealthy: Initial salaries, instead of being driven up and up by bids in the open market, will start on Major League Baseball’s much lower rookie scale. $42 million could turn into just above $500,000.

These players belong to what is very likely the last generation of Cuban athletes who will have to endure such outrageous hardships to get here. The group contains steady veterans, rising superstars and young prospects. The portraits were taken during spring training in Arizona, where much of the league gathered to loosen up and celebrate the thawing of the continent. Cuban players had a little extra to celebrate: not only the usual optimism of a fresh season but also the dawn of a potentially radical new era, one in which the road home may not be quite so obstructed, and in which more of their countrymen will be joining them — safely, normally — soon.

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