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Saturday, Jun 23, 2018
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Good juju: America, Cuba and baseball diplomacy

Despite the outdated embargo, baseball diplomacy between the United States and Cuba is alive and well. We should build on that positive and extend our relationship to other areas. Nothing highlighted this for me as much as walking down the cobblestone streets of Old Havana with Wade Boggs. The children crowded around these two Americanos. It had been years since the famous one (Wade, not me) routinely toppled major-league records as though they were dominos and made history as a Tampa Bay Devil Ray when he became the first player ever to blast a home run as his 3,000th hit. Cuban parents and grandparents knew all about that and had passed on the information to this new generation. They were surprisingly current on baseball developments in clubs across America. I am not a politician. I am a politically conservative jock and businessman, a husband and father. Wade and I were in Cuba on a people-to-people visit. Weíd brought American goodwill and real gloves and bats and balls for the children. Their reaction was awesome. At the same time, I was profoundly saddened by the poverty of these little players, who had proudly showed us mitts and gloves they had carefully created out of old cardboard boxes. The whole experience got me thinking about the way that sports bring people together, even countries whose governments canít seem to get along. There is an incredible bond that exists in the locker room. Words canít describe it. There is also a special relationship between players and fans. Iíve felt both.
This isnít about me, but it is important to point out that I grew up in pre-Castro Miami, where my dad took me to see the original minor league Miami Marlins, who played in the International League. Whenever the Havana Sugar Kings came to town, the ball park was packed and jumping. There was good juju in the stands. Thatís what we need in our Cuba policy: Good juju. The negative approach of the embargo hasnít worked. Letís try something else. When a Cuban baseball player wants a shot at the big time, he has to defect and leave family and friends behind. How stupid is that? Why shouldnít talented young Cubans be able to improve their lives with an education while playing for wonderful coaches such as FSUís Mike Martin or USFís Lelo Prado? Why shouldnít our American kids enjoy Cuban teammates and friendships? Fans donít care where you were born. They just want the player to succeed for the home team. The player-to-player and player-to-fan bonds knock down political boundaries. Thatís sports diplomacy. Iím focusing on baseball, but relations between our two countries would improve by participation in other sports. Women and girls as well as men and boys could compete in softball, basketball, track and field, boxing and on and on. This isnít rocket science, and it has been done before. Like I said, Iím not a politician, but I remember ping-pong diplomacy, which is such a part of common knowledge that it has its own Wikipedia definition. Ping-pong diplomacy was the early 1970s exchange of table tennis players between the United States and the Peopleís Republic of China. It marked a thaw in U.S.-China relations. Letís get back to todayís opportunity to open doors through a different sport. An oppressive island government, the passage of time and a Cold War policy have not kept Cuban fans from following their beloved American beisbol or dampened our interest in and affection for our neighbors, the Cuban people. Letís start off with the good juju, America-Cuba baseball diplomacy. Who knows where it will lead? Play ball!

Barry Smith is a former Florida State University and professional football player who lives in Tampa. Smith, who played with the Bucs for a season, has served on the Tampa Bay Sports Commission and the Outback Bowl Team Selection Committee.

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