A Grand Slam

I love baseball. And being a Yankees fan, I also love to watch the Baltimore Orioles get clobbered. So last week's game between the O's and a group of Cuban all-stars was great fun for me. I must admit, though, that while watching this particular game, as well as the one held a few weeks earlier in Havana, I didn't have the sense I was witnessing something truly historic.

And then along came Diego Tintorero, who ran on to the Camden Yards playing field waving a sign that read, "Freedom -- Strike Out Against Castro."

As Tintorero loped across the outfield, looking more foolish than noble, I wondered how long it would take police to corral him. Suddenly there appeared the second-base umpire, who was part of the Cuban delegation, who intercepted Tintorero, lifted him over his head, then slammed him to the ground in a smooth move that would have made Hulk Hogan proud. Once Tintorero hit the grass, the umpire, Cesar Valdes, pummeled him with his fists until several players dragged him away.

In Miami this fracas has now come to represent the tyranny of the Castro regime. In an editorial this past week, the Miami Herald referred to the umpire as a "Cuban goon" who symbolized his country's efforts to stifle free speech through violence. The Herald's view (parroted by Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and others) is simplistic and too narrow.

This incident was more than just a symbol of Castro's dictatorship. It was also a sign of the Cuban exile community's declining influence. You could easily argue that this one moment aptly captured just how ineffective Cuban Americans are outside Miami. The fact that the baseball games took place at all is further evidence that their clout continues to wane following the death of Jorge Mas Canosa in November 1997.

Years from now the only thing people will remember about these games is Tintorero being dropped faster than a cheating spouse on the Jerry Springer Show. If he was trying to create a memorable scene, something akin to the unforgettable image of the lone man blocking the path of a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square, he failed miserably.

Instead Tintorero was the comic relief on every sports-highlight reel in the nation that night. Someday I expect to see the footage of him being body-slammed on an episode of International Bloopers, or maybe America's Funniest Diplomatic Pratfalls.

The only outrage I felt as a result of Tintorero's buffoonery stemmed from the Herald's May 5 headline at the top of the local section: "Ballgame protester is a longtime activist." The story noted that Tintorero was a member of the venerable exile group Alpha 66, a self-described commando unit, and that he and others claim to have taken part in a 1995 raid on a Cuban resort hotel in which they indiscriminately sprayed the building with machine-gun fire.

From my perspective this immediately transformed Tintorero from a sad clown into a contemptible human being. Either the man is a liar who concocted the story of the machine-gun attack to make himself seem like a hero to other nincompoops in the exile community, or he was telling the truth, in which case he is no better than the thugs who commit drive-by shootings on the streets of Liberty City. Either way he is nothing more than a publicity-seeking coward and should be denounced as such.

He certainly is not an "activist."
The hunger-strikers outside the Krome detention center who fasted for so long in protest of INS policies -- those people are activists. The independent journalists in Cuba who risk their lives trying to disseminate the truth about conditions on the island -- they too are activists. Their actions have meaning. Their actions make sense.

The attempt to ban Cigar Aficionado from newsstands at Miami International Airport because its contents were viewed as pro-Castro was another low point for Miami last week. The woman who ordered the magazine pulled from the shelves was Cuban exile Mayra Bustamante, an assistant director in the county's aviation department. I've known Mayra for years and I believe she's a good person. The problem was she followed her heart, not her head, a common occurrence in Miami.

There simply is no perspective in this town. No middle ground. You either support those who raucously oppose Castro in everything they do, or you risk being branded a Castro sympathizer. Too often the voices of those who try to carve a middle path are drowned out. And Miami's media play into it. For example it seems that every time someone calls into question U.S. policy toward Cuba, a reporter feels the need to quote, ad nauseum, an opposing view.

After the first game in Havana, one Miami TV station broadcast an extremely brief sound bite from the mayor of Baltimore, Kurt Schmoke, expressing his support for the goodwill exchange. The station, WPLG-TV (Channel 10), then proceeded to interview a spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation who went on and on and on about how the mayor was wrong and the game was a mistake. The fact that this spokeswoman had already been afforded numerous opportunities to state her opinion about the game during previous newscasts (as well as throughout the game itself) apparently was unimportant to Channel 10.

It isn't a desire for balance or fairness that drives a station like Channel 10 to do that. It's fear.

Because Channel 10 didn't allow me a chance to hear from Mayor Schmoke in any meaningful way, I decided to call him myself. We spoke prior to last week's game. Schmoke sat with Castro during the exhibition game in Havana, and spent several days touring Cuba. This was Schmoke's second trip to Cuba, the first being his visit immediately following the Pope's historic sojourn this past year. "Clearly it is not a political system that I would want to live under," Schmoke said of Cuba. But merely going there, he added, "doesn't mean you are accepting Castro's point of view."

He said the response to his trip, as well as to the game itself, has been heartening. "Both my mail and the phone calls I've received have been overwhelmingly supportive of the visit," he said. "And I think it's because I tried to keep it just a people-to-people exchange. I wasn't trying to make broader political statements. I know our two countries still have significant policy disagreements and that those matters are going to get resolved at a much higher political level than mine. What I knew was that we had two countries where the national pastimes are baseball, and I also know there are many other issues where we share a common passion, such as a love for music and the arts. I just think it helps to reduce misunderstandings when we can actually come together, face-to-face, and talk about what really bothers us.

"My personal view," the mayor continued, "is that the embargo as a policy is an idea whose time should be over. I think that as a matter of policy we should be looking to end the embargo. I personally think the embargo is counterproductive because it is one of the things that allows Fidel to help retain some of his power by looking to the north and talking about these evil oppressors who would restrict the flow of medicines and the flow of goods, and that allows at least some people to rally around him. I also think it hurts our relations with other countries around the world."

He recalled the first time he saw Castro in person; it was the inauguration of South African President Nelson Mandela. "I was struck by the way in which government leaders from around the world greeted him," Schmoke said. "It is quite a disconnect when you see him greeted with such praise by leaders around the world, and yet here in our own country he is the ultimate political pariah."

He hadn't actually spoken with Castro until the ballgame in Havana. "When I saw him, it was like meeting a historic figure," the mayor said. "This was someone I had read about most of my life. The guy has a very imposing presence. He did not speak English at all in public. I'm aware that he can speak English, but he did not with us. So we just spoke through an interpreter, and all the conversations were about baseball."

Schmoke said he is planning a host of other exchanges with Cuba. A chess tournament is being organized. "We'd like to see some of their musicians play at our cultural festival," he noted, "and some of our musicians would like to go down there." There will be an exchange of teachers to discuss the problems of illiteracy, as well as an exchange of doctors to address public-health issues.

"There are things we can learn from them," Schmoke said. "Clearly on the public-health side, there are things they have done in primary care within neighborhoods that we could benefit from. I think their infant-mortality rate generally was lower than some of the areas of our city hardest hit by poverty, and so we will try to learn from the successes of other countries where we can."

This past December Schmoke sent a delegation to Cuba from Baltimore's Jewish community, and already the group is planning to return to the island to work on restoring a Jewish cemetery in Havana. "I am not trying to lead the charge on any particular political direction," Schmoke explained. "I'm just trying to open some dialogue and keep the exchanges going on the people-to-people level."

"I think it helps to reduce misunderstandings when we can come together, face-to-face, and talk about what bothers us.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede