FIU drops out of reunion game for Cuban baseball players

Even before the first pitch, the 50th anniversary “reunion” game of Cuba’s famed Industriales baseball team has been dominated by community infighting, finger-pointing, and mutual suspicion — all over an event which organizers say was supposed to promote unity among the island’s people.

Some exile groups view the Havana baseball team as a propaganda tool for the Castro dictatorship. When Florida International University last month abruptly pulled out as a host site for the doubleheader game, event organizers complained the university was giving in to community pressure.

At 11 a.m. Saturday, the exhibition game — reuniting former Industriales players from Cuba and the United States — will go on, thanks to a last-minute booking at the city-owned Fort Lauderdale stadium. Among those taking part: 77-year-old Antonio “Tony” Gonzalez, an outfielder from the 1960s, and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, who fled Cuba in 1997 and signed with the New York Yankees.

“It’s a historic meeting. It’s amazing,” Gonzalez recently told the BBC network. A similar exhibition game was held last week in Tampa, with little controversy.

Game organizer Alejandro Canton is still bitter about FIU’s sudden withdrawal, calling it “disrespectful.”

“It was in the middle of Miami, closer to everybody ... this is our city, we want to enjoy our city, and it’s just a game,” he said.

Others say the mere idea of Industriales players taking the field at FIU was offensive. The university has a large Cuban-American student population, and next door to its main campus, at Tamiami Park, is the Cuban Memorial monument that honors victims of Fidel Castro’s oppressive government.

“These guys, they want to play baseball in the same place, you believe that?” said Miguel Saavedra, head of the exile group Vigilia Mambisa. The Industriales team, he says, is “the right hand of the Castro regime.”

FIU administrators have said little about the event. In public records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, FIU appeared to be fully cooperative in the idea of hosting the game — until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.

The university’s contract with Canton, for games to be held Aug. 10-11, allowed FIU to cancel at any time if the university determined the event “is not in the best interest of FIU due to circumstances beyond FIU’s reasonable control.”

It was that clause — with no further explanation — that the university cited when notifying Canton that the game was being called off. When the cancellation subsequently made international news, FIU released this short statement: “FIU Athletics has canceled a contract with Somos Cuba Entertainment Group for the use of one of FIU’s athletic venues. The event was canceled due to a contractual matter. We regret any inconvenience this has caused.”

The university declined to comment further this week. Almost a month after the cancellation, FIU’s lawyers told Canton there were additional justifications for the university’s action: Canton had failed to pay the required $7,940 fee to secure the stadium, and FIU regulations limit political speech to designated “Free Assembly Areas” on campus, which don’t include athletic facilities.

In the weeks since FIU bowed out, the ACLU has requested hundreds of pages of documents from the university. In making the records requests, the ACLU said it suspected that FIU violated the First Amendment rights of the baseball game organizers by cancelling an event simply because its political message might be unpopular.

Miami has a history of constitutional violations when it comes to performers or artists perceived as friendly to the Castro regime. In 1989, the city of Miami moved to terminate the lease of a Cuban museum that planned to sell artwork created by artists who had not formally denounced Castro. The museum sued on First Amendment grounds and won.

In 2003, the city of Miami lost another free speech court case, after a federal judge found that the city had inappropriately charged more than $36,000 in security fees to a concert by Cuban musicians Los Van Van — a group some accuse of having communist leanings. The judge ruled that the fees were essentially a tax on unpopular speech.

In the case of the Industriales baseball game, the records obtained by the ACLU reveal little about how the decision to cancel was made.

On July 15, university administrators (including FIU’s Cuban-American athletic director, Pete Garcia) circulated a list of the participating baseball players via e-mail.

About seven hours later, FIU general counsel Kristina Raattama sent a one-sentence e-mail: “Go ahead and send the termination notice.”

What happened during that seven-hour period? Maria Kayanan, an attorney for the ACLU, calls that the “black hole” of information in the case.

The ACLU says Saavedra’s exile group boasted last month of meeting with FIU administrators and persuading them to pull out of the game. In an interview with the Miami Herald, however, Saavedra insisted he’d only sent a letter to FIU, not had an actual meeting, and that he is not responsible for any decisions the university made.

Saavedra, along with others opposed to the baseball game, will be meeting Saturday morning at Little Havana’s Versailles restaurant. The group will then ride a chartered bus up to Fort Lauderdale to wave signs and protest the event.

Two of the names on the list of players — Javier Mendez and Juan Padilla — are despised by some in the exile community. They are famous for punching a Cuban exile who ran onto the field during the 1999 Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, Canada. Diego Tintorero was holding a sign pledging support for dissidents on the island when he ran onto the field.

Canton said the punching incident has been overblown. A Cuban exile himself, Canton said athletes on the island are fed a narrative that the world outside their borders is evil — psychologically, they’re steeled for battle when they travel abroad.

“The first thing that comes to their mind is ‘I’m going to defend my country!’ ” Canton said. “It’s a war.”

Canton said he doesn’t oppose protesters coming to the exhibition game and making their opinions known, but he still hopes the event will bring the Cuban community closer together. Once on the field, the former teammates — now living in separate nations — will share hugs, Canton said.

“Cuba is opening to the world right now, little by little,” Canton said. “I think Miami has to do the same.”