Baseball is the sort of thing that baffles most of the non-American world. Yet baseball is deeply ingrained in our national psyche. Whether you love it or hate it — there is no middle ground — baseball is part of who you are. It is not just a game, it is a cultural phenomenon. As a piece of Americana that so precisely defines who we are, it should not be exploited as a political tool.
On Monday, the Cuban All-Stars played the Baltimore Orioles in a rematch of their March 28 game in Havana. Baltimore won the first game 3-2 in 11 innings, but a capacity crowd of 47,940 watched the highly-paid Orioles — their payroll exceeds $78-million — get soundly trounced, 12-6, by the $2,250 Cuban team at Camden Yards. (Fortunately for Baltimore, it was a non-league game, and the loss did not drive them further into baseball’s cellar.)
The game was not without incident. Outside the stadium, large crowds gathered to protest 40 years of Fidel Castro’s rule in Cuba; smaller groups organized in support of Castro. Inside the stadium, during the fourth inning, three anti-Castro protesters ran onto the field, disrupting play. Then, in the top of the fifth inning, things got out of hand. Another protester jumped over the right-field wall onto the field holding a sign that read, “Freedom — Strike Out Against Castro.” This man ran too close to second-base umpire Cesar Valdez, one of three Cuban umpires on the six-man staff. Valdez tackled the protester, hefted him into the air, threw him to the ground and started throwing punches. Orioles’ left fielder B.J. Surhoff intervened, stopping the fight. Subsequently the four men who had disrupted play were charged with trespassing.
We are tempted to blame Valdez or the protesters for the incident, but responsibility falls on the shoulders of Major League Baseball. A sport with internal problems, like team-salary discrepancies, should not add to the mess by attempting to overstate its self-importance and becoming a political activist. Baseball is about playing a game loved by millions, not making political statements. Embargoes on Cuba and creating dialogue are the purview of politicians and diplomats, not designated hitters and shortstops.
Baseball’s leaders had enough sense not to arrange a game between the Cubans and the Florida Marlins in Miami, but they should have realized any game played in the United States would light a political powder keg. It is surprising that things did not get even more violent on Monday. It is time for Major League Baseball to reevaluate itself. Baseball might have weighty social importance to our culture, but it is still just a game played for the fans. Players are not emissaries of Americana; they are athletes who should worry about hitting a curveball over the comparative merits of having a repressive communist state on our doorstep.
The timelessness of the sport and purity of the game can be preserved only as long as baseball remains separate from the specific concerns of the day. Professional sports in general must hold themselves above political whims, existing for the sake of the fans, not for changing the world. The events on Monday, with any luck, will have taught this lesson to the league.