Originally created 01/20/99

Cuba vs. Orioles: not just yet



HAVANA -- They have the dates, the bats and the ballparks.

What the Cubans and the Baltimore Orioles do not have just yet is a deal on an exhibition baseball series -- and money appears to be the obstacle.

Representatives for Cuba and major league baseball were unable to reach an agreement Tuesday before Orioles owner Peter Angelos returned home.

Angelos and Raul Villanueva, president of the Cuban Sports Institute, refused to identify the stumbling blocks. But sources close to the talks, who requested anonymity, said the two sides could not agree on how proceeds from the exhibition games would be used.

If the sides agree, the first exhibition game would be March 28 at Havana's Latinoamericano Stadium between a Cuban all-star team and the Orioles. The second would be April 3 between the same teams at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

"The good thing is that Cuba and the United States are very close," Angelos said of future negotiations. "If it is necessary for one of us to come back and meet with chairman Villanueva we will be here very quickly."

Angelos said he is optimistic the two sides will come to an understanding.

"Our goal remains two games," he said. "Hopefully, after those two there will be many more games between the Cuban team and other major leagues."

The Cubans appeared more pessimistic.

In a communique released Tuesday night by the Center for International Press, the government reiterated its requirement that the proceeds go to hurricane victims in Central America "attended by Cuban doctors."

"Cuba will not renounce this just and noble requirement even if none of the games are played," it said.

It also criticized the American delegation for "proposing the destination, distribution and form" of the proceeds.

Angelos and the rest of the 12-member delegation, which arrived in Havana last Friday, attended a Sunday game at Latinoamericano Stadium.

B.J. Surhoff of the Baltimore Orioles; Sandy Alderson, executive vice president of baseball operations for major league baseball; and Tony Bernazard, special assistant to the executive director of the players' union, were among those who returned to the stadium Monday to walk the field and measure distances.

"We came away very satisfied with the field and look forward to playing the Cubans there," Angelos said.

"It is a field very capable of hosting a game like this," Surhoff added.

Angelos said the Orioles would field a "first-rate" lineup for the games.

"It won't be minor league," he said. "We have respect for the Cuban team and we'll have our work cut out for us."

The exhibition games, first proposed in 1996, were earlier rejected by the State Department because of the trade embargo that has been in place for three decades. No major league team has played in Cuba since the Brooklyn Dodgers held spring training in Havana in 1947.

The two sides issued a joint statement and said they have agreed on a number areas: dates, locations, starting times, umpires and visas. Both sides would use wooden bats; Cuban baseball players are accustomed to aluminum ones.

However, the statement added: "There are important areas which are unresolved at this time but which will remain the subject of continuing discussions in the days ahead."

Major league baseball and the players' union insist that the Cuban stadium have padding on the outfield fences. If the padding cannot be brought in from the United States -- the trade embargo prohibits that -- it would have to be imported from Japan at a cost of about dlrs 400,000.

President Clinton said this month he would let the Orioles play a Cuban team as part of a plan to increase relations between the American and Cuban people while maintaining the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation.

The plan would let more Americans send money to Cubans, offer direct mail service between the two countries and expand direct charter flights.

Now that the games have Clinton's backing, the State Department will require that any proceeds do not benefit the Cuban government.

The American preference is that any proceeds go to Catholic Relief Services' Cuban counterpart, Caritas. Tom Garofalo, director of charity efforts in Cuba by the Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, was among those in the delegation.

Cuban authorities have said they would like to see the money benefit victims of Hurricane Mitch, which devastated a wide swath of Central America late last year.

"I think that our prospects for a successful conclusion dictate that we don't get into the unresolved points," Angelos said before heading to the airport for the flight back to Baltimore.

"Hopefully, there will be profits and that they will be put to good use," he said. "But that's all I can say about that now."