U.S. Baseball Team Playing Cuba In Havana Today For The First Time In 16 Years

Also read "Cuban Baseball Agents: Risks and Lies."

Last time around, the U.S. really couldn't have picked a worse moment to send a baseball team down to Havana to take on Cuba's best bats. The year was 1996, and Fidel's fighter pilots had just shot down a pair of planes operated by Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami-based activist group. So maybe it's not a surprise that the Americans hadn't been back since -- until today.

A team of 22 mostly college stars landed in Havana yesterday  and has already taken the first in a five game series from the collection of Cuban stars.

U.S. baseball officials say there's no particular reason why the team finally made it back this year. But surely Obama's move to soften the embargo with Castro played a part. (Perhaps so did Fidel's increasingly Jello-like brain).

"It wasn't for lack of trying on both people's parts. And there were probably political pressures that went on above our pay grades," Mike Gaski, president of USA Baseball, tells the AP.

If sports exchanges are meant to solidify ties between countries outside the political spectrum, the 1996 series came at about the worse possible time for such an attempt. In February, Fidel ordered his air force to shoot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes, which routinely dropped anti-Castro leaflets on the island.

The incident killed four, and lead eventually to Bill Clinton dramatically strengthening the embargo.

Youth teams have traveled to Cuba since then -- plus the Baltimore Orioles for a 1999 game that resulted in an excellent photo of Fidel sitting with fellow dictator Bud Selig.

Organizers hope this year's series is significantly less dramatic. Game one in a five game series already wrapped last night with the U.S. earning a 4-3 win behind a grand slam from Oregon State star Michael Conferto.

"There's always been an anxiety about defections," Gaski says. "Maybe everybody's at a better place right now."

Or at least they feel better until the anticipated follow-up game, when the Cuban stars will travel to the U.S. for an exhibition ...

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