Baseball Diplomacy

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Cuba: Baseball Diplomacy

Baseball Diplomacy


In March 1998, the Baltimore Orioles flew to Cuba to play its national team in Havana. In a well-pitched game the O's won 3-2, in the 13th inning. Two months later, the Cubans routed the birds in Baltimore. During the games, talent agents from various teams from both leagues took detailed notes about the Cuban players. Indeed, such careful studying, if practiced by U.S. diplomats in Havana, might actually teach Washington policy makers something about the nature of Cuba. This may happen when fish learn to sing opera.

The games did not, as we know, lead to Washington's lifting of its embargo or travel ban. Baseball diplomacy did, however, lead to the defection in 2002 of Cuba's star pitcher, Jose Contreras, who had held the Orioles to two runs in nine innings. He signed with the New York Yankees for millions of dollars. Even in the 21st Century, Dollar diplomacy still functions.

In May 1999 the Cuban national baseball team visited Baltimore to play a second exhibition game (the first was held earlier in the year in Havana) against the Baltimore Orioles. The U.S. media portrayed this cultural exchange as "baseball diplomacy." As it is usually understood, diplomacy is the practice of international politics between states. Yet, no U.S. government officials were involved in the negotiations in Havana that produced this exhibition series. Nor did any U.S. government officials attend either game. In fact, the opposite was more prevalent, with Cuban-American members of Congress condemning the series as a show of support for the Castro government. No new political discourse emerged between the U.S. and Cuba as a result of this international exchange. Categorizing the Cuban-Baltimore baseball games as "diplomacy" is simply false.

This is not to say that sport and politics are not inextricably intertwined, because they are. The Olympic Games provide a clear example of international politics in a sporting venue. The horrific events of the 1972 Munich Games, which ended with the slaughter of Israeli athletes and coaches brought worldwide attention to Middle East conflicts. Cold War politics have also appeared in the Olympic Games. The U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan and the Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games showed how sports are an arena of international political competition as well as athletic competition.

Despite the popular insistence in the U.S. that sports are apolitical, they actually are involved not merely in international politics but also in the state's very legitimacy. The emergence of modem team sports parallels the rise of the nation state. Both became prevalent in the nineteenth century and remain important at the end of the twentieth century. Modern sport was initially the province of the urban elite: the same elite who ruled the centers of colonial empires. The political and economic elite no longer participate in team sports as athletes but they have maintained continuous control over the organization of sport.

In New York, for example, urban elites used sports from ...
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