Storm ends retired Cuban baseball stars’ Fla. game

What a political storm couldn’t stop, a tropical one did.

Thunder, lightning and flash flooding on Saturday rained out the

first South Florida matchup between retired Cuban baseball players

from both sides of the Florida Straits.

The game between former members of the Industriales, the Yankees

of Cuba, would have been inconceivable a decade ago, due in large

part to the Miami Cuban exile community’s opposition to cultural

exchanges with the island. But the United States and Cuba have

eased travel restrictions in recent years, and the younger

generation and new immigrants in South Florida are more open to

such events.

Even so, the matchup was nearly derailed in July, when Florida

International University, which had agreed to host two games,

suddenly backed out, citing ”contractual issues.” Its decision

came shortly after resistance from a small but vocal Miami-based

group that has long opposed the administration of Communist Cuban

President Raul Castro and former President Fidel Castro. The first

of the games was also originally slated for the same day a broad

coalition of Cuban-American groups was holding a conference at

FIU’s law school to ratchet up pressure on the Cuban

government.

None of the most successful retired exile players, such as

Orlando ”El Duque” Hernandez, appeared Saturday despite being

promoted in event publicity.

But fans and players seemed undaunted. Instead of the usual

pregame handshakes between opposing teams, many of the players –

some who had not seen each other for a decade – grabbed one another

in bear hugs. Fans and players from the U.S. covered their hearts

for both the Star Spangled Banner and the Cuban national anthem, La

Bayamesa.

Game organizer Alejandro Canton and his company Somos Cuba (“We

are Cuba”) Entertainment Group have frequently brought artists

from the island and support more cultural exchanges. He pulled off

a successful game in Tampa last week. But Miami was different.

FIU has refused to say much publicly about the cancellation, but

a letter from the school’s attorney to the American Civil Liberties

Union made clear top university officials were jittery about the

games’ potential political nature. The school also argued it had

excluded its sports venues from political gatherings, although

former President Bill Clinton gave a political speech at its

basketball arena In 2012.

Just outside the stadium gates Saturday, about two dozen, mostly

gray-haired men and women with Cuban flags gathered to protest the

game before it started. Those who came to see the game filmed the

protesters on their phones but remained jovial.

Johan Alvarez, 45, who runs a small health care company in

Miami, was among those snapping photos. Alvarez, who came to the

U.S. from Cuba more than a decade ago, called the protest ”part of

the folklore of Miami.”

Alvarez said he grew up watching the visiting players and those

who now call the U.S. home and was excited to see the matchup.

”It’s nostalgic,” he said.

Most of the hundreds of people lined up early at the Fort

Lauderdale stadium Saturday had little interest in talking

politics. Old and young alike sported the royal blue T-shirts and

hats of the Industriales as they snacked on pregame hot dogs and

guava pastries at the stadium food court.

”This is pretty cool,” said Carlos Campos, 30, who left Cuba a

decade ago. He waved away questions about the controversy. ”This

is about a game, not political arguments.”

During the brief playing time, one protester ran onto the field

and was booed by the spectators before being tackled by police and

quickly removed. Minutes after the game resumed, a crack of thunder

exploded above the stadium and rain beat down. Organizers initially

hoped to continue the game, but they eventually gave up as the

freshly spread dirt turned to mud and lighting flashed without

respite.

Baseball, the national pastime of Cuba, has long united exiles

and those still on the island, but it has also been a point of

contention. Over the years, dozens of top players have defected to

the U.S., some going on to play in World Series championships. As

recently as last month, all-star first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu

was reported to have defected with dreams of playing in the U.S.

Major Leagues.