By Matt Mataxas
Noise reverberated across the Atlantic Ocean last Tuesday.
The cracking of bats was louder than ever before. The cracking of a leather mitt engulfing a baseball was louder than in any other game. There was a third cracking noise, but its sound was not as easily identifiable.
It could have been the sound of political tensions breaking between the United States and Cuba. It also could have been the sound of countless exiled Cuban hearts breaking, distraught at seeing the leader of the free world shaking hands with the leader of a historically ruthless, brutally oppressive, communist regime.
Sometimes sports are just games. The 37th baseball game in a 163 game season seldom has any real significance. A collegiate basketball game in November is normally just another box score.
But occasionally, sports are more than just sports. Tuesday’s baseball game in Havana between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuban National Team was, as Jay Z would say, “Thanksgiving disguised as a feast.”
Native Americans and Pilgrims gathered together under the premise of good will and feasting, but indubitably each group sat at the table with their own agenda and a healthy dose of distrust for one another.
The same is true of President Obama’s rendezvous with Cuban President Raul Castro; distrust and opposing agendas quietly rested just below the mask of America’s favorite pastime.
Jackie Robinson’s 92-year-old wife was there. President Obama was there. Joe Torre was there.
And so was Captain America himself, Derek Jeter.
On the surface, the game and President Obama’s visit makes sense. The United States’ foreign policy in regards to Cuba has been to essentially pretend that the island nation flat out did not exist in any capacity whatsoever. Despite the trade embargo and travel restrictions, Cuba still remained unflinchingly communist.
And their people suffered for it.
Obama’s visit and the baseball game were supposed to signify a step forward, a step towards a brighter tomorrow.
So hearty helpings of hand shaking, back patting, and good will for everyone
But then ESPN’s Dan Le Batard, who has a Cuban heritage, interrupted the high five parade with an incredibly poignant point.
“Derek Jeter is going to shake the hand that has the blood of our people on it.”
The blood of Cuban people is on The Captain’s palms. On Obama’s palms. On the palms of Jackie Robinson’s wife.
The problem is not with Obama’s visit itself, but the vibe emitting from the visit. It felt like a celebration of sorts. The cheers of optimism and proclamations of progress roared out over the aching groan of all those who have suffered under the decades long rule of the tyrannical Castro family.
Le Batard said that the hoopla surrounding the visit ignores everything that Cuban families have been through, from the forfeiture of basic civil rights to the government-orchestrated murders of family members who refused to accept political oppression as the status quo.
He said that we wouldn’t be playing baseball in Germany if Hitler was still in power, and to an extent he has a point. The United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics because our government refused to support the Soviet Union’s politics, and while many have debated if this were the right move, it was at its core a decisive statement that oppression and violence was intolerable.
An exhibition baseball game in Cuba is not on par with the Olympics, and vehicles of change cannot be driven if the operator is constantly looking in the rear view mirror.
However, by the same token, a vehicle of change, an automobile of progress, should not be driven into a country that has brutally oppressed its people for generations blaring pop music and shooting confetti from its windows.
The focus should not be on the majesty of playing baseball in a forgotten country, but rather on demanding change in Cuba.
Home runs are not as exciting as liberation. Arguments over balls and strikes should have been arguments about why the Castros are still oppressing their people.
The Rays won 4-1, but as Le Batard said, the contest felt like a loss before it even began because “the history of his people felt like it was being either ignored or trampled.”
In a nutshell, Obama’s visit can either been hailed as the first stop in a parade of change, or as a slow moving stampede that stomps on the legacies of those who died fighting for liberty in Cuba.
Le Batard is right to be upset with the narrative surrounding Obama’s visit. In fact, the very ability to speak critically about anything the government or media does is an action with which no Cuban citizen can relate. If Le Batard were still in Cuba when he released his comments, well…
His blood would coat Derek Jeter’s palms too.