—Perhaps it was more of a promotional event than a baseball game.
That wouldn’t be too far off center from the roots of exhibition baseball. Gone are the days of barnstorming where games were played merely for entertainment, promotional and financial reasons. No you won’t see Mike Trout and his buddies travel across the U.S. anytime soon to take on your American legion to fill the stands of your municipal stadium for $5 a head.
But you did, or a lot of people did, see the Tampa Bay Rays take on the Cuba National baseball team in Havana on Monday in front of 55,000 onlookers and a worldwide TV audience via ESPN and ESPN Deportes and it’s many distribution methods across the globe.
And it could have been really big except it wasn’t it was a Monday that left an empty used feeling in the hearts of many baseball fans so eager to push the winter season behind us and think and enjoy baseball.
ESPN was there to cover a major historical event right, after all it has been nearly 100 years since a U.S. president has stepped foot in Cuba. Or was it there to promote its upcoming coverage of the major league baseball season and to fill editorial space across its vast platforms during a relative lull in the action in between the end of the second round of the NCAA tournament and the sweet 16 and the NFL draft and the NHL and NBA playoffs it was a Monday and it made headlines.
ESPN’s own Dan LeBatard seized on the opportunity to make it personal and say the trip meant nothing as far as political change. Putting on his hat as Miami Herald columnist LeBatard wrote that essentially a lot of people involved missed the point or simply haven’t experienced the pain associated with the political problem, “So much happy coverage on the television this week. Historic visit! America and Baseball celebrating themselves. Obama and Jeter and ESPN head toward communism like it is another cruise port, so many symbols of Americana descending on a rotting island stuck in the 1950s, and it doesn’t feel quite right back in Miami, like watching a funeral morph into a party. The history of my own people feels like it is either being ignored or trampled here, and I’m not quite sure which of those feels worse.”
And at its root, it was a baseball game between the Tampa Rays and the Cuban national team, which for baseball fans doesn’t count in the win-loss standings and quite frankly, have many of us baseball fans confused as to what it was all about. That’s not to say it wasn’t about something, it just didn’t seem to be about what we were used to.
Was it a diplomatic voyage by President Obama and if so, why did he pick a baseball game?
That he actually answered when he said in part, “It can change attitudes sometimes in ways that a politician can never change, that a speech can’t change.”
He continued, “all of those kids who started growing up watching the Brooklyn Dodgers, suddenly they’re rooting for a black man on the field and how that affects their attitudes laying the groundwork for the civil rights movement that’s a legacy that all of us have benefited from, black and white and Latino and Asian.”
And as we lean back into our recliners turn on our high def TVs and prepare our hearts and minds for lazy evenings with the national pastime, and reach into your proverbial bag of potatoe chips we might think, what’s the deal with Cuba anyhow? Am I supposed to know about this, or can I go back to ranking the top 5 first basemen for my fantasy draft?
Speaking of potato chips, the Rays seemed excited to be participants in th whole affair and the game, but not so much excited as you might expect after a travel delay put them on the airport tarmac for close to nine hours. De facto team social media spokesman, pitcher Chris Archer clued us in while the boys waited.
— Chris Archer (@ChrisArcher22) March 23, 2016
“I’m thankful.. For lays potatoes chips” (only thing we have to eat)- Brad Miller
— Chris Archer (@ChrisArcher22) March 23, 2016
Many of us had to reach back into our history classes and try to remember exactly was it the Bay of Pigs or the missile crisis that got us to Monday when the Rays defeated Cuba 4-1 in 9 innings under the sun light in Havana with 55,000 Cubans peering and millions others watching via ESPN and ESPN Deportes.
The political and the sport can never miss each other. Sometimes they rub shoulders. Sometimes they collide. But they don’t miss each other.
The one question many had, and I think LeBatard had as well, was why did ESPN make such a big deal regarding the game. Was it the natural consequence of a lull in the schedule and an opportunity to use its teeth to cover a more interesting aspect of sports? Or was it 40 something producers and decision makers who back the last time major league baseball was in Cuba March 28th 1999 had delightful memories and knew we needed to make a big deal out of this event.
The general consensus of the matter seems to be it was all contrived and there were so many non-baseball agendas it was confusing as to what really was the true purpose of the game.
Brian Costa of the Wall Street Journal wrote under the headline, “In Havana, Nine Innings of Carefully Staged Baseball.”
“There was an element of stagecraft to it all, since the Cuban government controlled ticket distribution for the game. When Rays outfielder and Cuban defector Dayron Varona stepped to the plate in the first inning, he was met with only tepid applause. But genuine moments abounded.”
Meanwhile, many a baseball fans, including myself missed the sidenote that the President announced just a week prior that travel restrictions disallowing U.S. citizens travel to Cuba have been lifted. As one press report put it a “Cuban vacation is within reach for millions of Americans. ”
So while the Rays and Cuba National were trying to get the most guys across home plate in nine innings, the rest of us were dusting off the mental books shelves of our mind trying to just remember exactly “Cuba-United States” “Rays-Cuba” what’s the deal here?