President Barack Obama capped an historic visit to Cuba on Tuesday by indulging in sports diplomacy —catching a few innings of a baseball game in a raucous stadium, Cuba’s president at his side.
Perched behind home plate, the American president who has sought to open Cuba to the United States chatted with Raul Castro as they cheered several innings of the first exhibition game between a U.S. and a Cuban team since 1999.
“We share a national pastime — la pelota,” Obama said hours earlier in a speech to Cuban people and broadcast across the island. He called the sport one of many “common passions” that Americans and Cubans shared, even as their governments became adversaries.
And he noted that U.S. and Cuban players would later compete on the same Havana baseball field where baseball legend Jackie Robinson — who broke baseball’s racial barrier — played before he made his Major League debut.
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Sitting in the bleachers, he pointed to Robinson’s role in helping change U.S. views on race, as an example of “the power of sports.”
Sports “can change attitudes in ways that sometimes politicians can’t … or a speech can’t,” he told ESPN in an interview broadcast live.
The game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team stood as a symbol for the reconciliation Obama wants to see for the two countries: Cuban and American flags flew above the scoreboard, which read “TBR” and “CUB.”
Ceremonial first pitches were shared by two Cuban right-handed pitchers: Pedro Luis Lazo, a standout for the Cuban National Team, and Luis Tiant, born in Cuba and a three-time All Star during his Major League Baseball pitching career, playing primarily with the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox. A combination of Cuban and Major League Baseball umpires officiated the game.
A choral group dressed in white sang the Cuban national anthem in Spanish, with many in the crowd singing along. The U.S. national anthem followed, and although the crowd did not sing along, it applauded enthusiastically.
As it did for the release of dozens of doves, who soared over the baseball diamond as they were released from cages in the outfield. There were complaints, though, in the days leading up to the game that tickets weren't made available to the public. Seats instead appeared to be given to government loyalists.
Obama arrived at Havana’s Estadio LatinoAmericano with first lady Michelle Obama, their two daughters and his mother-in-law, and waved at the crowd to loud applause.
It was dwarfed only by the shouts for Castro, who arrived at the same time, amid shouts of “Cuba! Cuba!”
The game began with a moment of silence for the victims of the Brussels’ terrorist attacks on Tuesday. Obama and Castro stood side by side, Obama bowing his head.
That Obama kept to his schedule after the Brussels attack and didn’t scrap the game and return home drew scathing criticism in Washington, including from Republican presidential candidates.
“I wouldn’t be going to any baseball game today, that’s for darn sure,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich told Fox News, saying Obama should return to Washington and work the phones and “arrange some conferences with the heads of state.”
Samantha Rojas, a 25-year-old dentist said Obama’s visit was encouraging.
“There's a lot of emotion in the stadium," she said. "The fact that he's sitting here in a baseball game shows that things are going to change."
A major focus of Obama’s trip to Cuba this week was encouraging its government to embrace more private enterprise. Major League Baseball and Cuba’s government are in talks that would allow Cuban players to play ball in the United States without having to defect or risk dangerous sea passages and sometimes treacherous human traffickers.
Rays players said the Cuban fans’ excitement was unlike anything they’ve ever experienced.
"We ran out onto the field for a stretch and they started giving a standing ovation — awesome," said Logan Morrison, a first baseman with the Rays and former Marlins player. “For me, as a player, this experience is second-to-none."
During batting practice, Rays players signed autographs and threw baseballs to fans, more than players usually interact with fans in the bleachers. Rays star pitcher Chris Archer ran around the field with Diego Jesús Lopez Gonzales, a 9-year-old who plays baseball in Havana.
"It's beautiful," his father, Geovani López Peláez, said. "It makes the kids so happy."
Peláez likes the Rays, but said his favorite MLB team is the Chicago White Sox, also President Obama's team. He said he remembers watching on television as Obama threw out the first pitch at an MLB game wearing a White Sox cap.
The two presidents, who chatted during the game with what appeared to be an interpreter, were as much of a draw as the players, past and present. The Cuban team stopped by the area where the two were sitting. And Obama, Castro and first lady Michelle Obama reached through the stadium netting to shake hands with a contingent of Rays players who brought along their phones to snap pictures of the presidents.
Obama stood and cheered as the Rays scored a run in the second inning; Castro stayed seated.
The game took place at the 45,000-seat stadium, which also hosted the 1999 exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and Cuba's national team. It has been undergoing improvements, including installation of a new infield, under MLB supervision.
The stadium was a sea of red T-shirts, Cuban flags and excited fans who amused themselves with several rounds of the “wave.” Many waved Cuban flags, and at least one fan with a red Cuba T-shirt was sporting a Rays’ hat.
They got to their feet and danced when Y Que Tú Quieres Que Te Den by one of Cuba’s most popular performers, Adalberto Alvarez, came over the speakers.
The players walked out on the field with small children, also dressed in baseball uniforms, carrying small baseball bats.
The Rays drew enthusiastic applause, but the home team was greeted with roars of approval.
The stadium may have seemed similar to Obama, though he is more of a basketball fan. Like the Washington Nationals baseball stadium in D.C., the Havana stadium features a view of El Capitolio, the government’s majestic capitol building, which was modeled after the U.S. Capitol.
And like the D.C. version, El Capitolio is wrapped in scaffolding for a restoration project.
Special correspondent Spencer Parts contributed to this report. Miami Herald reporter Jim Wyss contributed to this report from Miami.