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Orioles May Play Games in Cuba

January 5, 1999

HAVANA (AP) _ Cubans welcome a plan that could lead to more U.S. money, mail and baseball heading their way.

Especially the baseball.

The possibility of a visit by the Baltimore Orioles would be the first trip by a major league team to this baseball-mad island in decades.

``How could I not go? I’ll be one of the first ones in the park,″ said Roman Garcia, wearing a New York Yankees cap at a baseball discussion that takes place daily in Havana’s Central Park.

The proposal announced by President Clinton on Tuesday would allow more Americans to send money to Cubans, offer direct mail service, expand direct charter flights and possibly let the Orioles play in Cuba.

Cuba’s state-run news media had not mentioned the proposal and the Foreign Ministry declined to comment on foreign news media reports, saying it wanted to study the official U.S. version first.

The baseball exchange is aimed at easing the plight of Cubans while maintaining sanctions against the Castro government. The measures follow an initiative by Pope John Paul II, who visited Cuba a year ago this week.

The Clinton administration said the games will be allowed only if profits go to humanitarian assistance in Cuba and not to Fidel Castro’s government.

The Orioles are expected to send a group to Cuba as early as this week to negotiate arrangements for the exhibition games, with one in Baltimore and one in Cuba.

Once a fount of major league baseball talent, Cuba has been largely isolated from U.S. professional baseball since shortly after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. The U.S. government has blocked major league visits to Cuba.

A few defectors _ most recently Orlando Hernandez of the Yankees _ have made their way to the major leagues, and Cubans have played against Latin American major leaguers in games against Dominican and other winter league teams.

``Cuba is a country that has ballplayers growing like grass,″ said Garcia, 47, an unemployed driver and former amateur baseball player.

On Tuesday, a dozen men arguing baseball said they kept up with the major leagues. And they debated who might come with the Orioles: Rafael Palmiero? Eric Davis?

``If it’s a series of seven games, I would go for the Orioles,″ said Heriberto Portillo, a bookseller. ``If it’s one game, anybody could win.″

Garcia noted that Cuba’s team would be in peak form for the proposed March or April meeting because its baseball season ends in late March, while the U.S. team would be in spring training.

He also said technical issues would have to be settled: Cuba, for example, uses metal bats; the U.S. players use wood.

Portillo, wearing a worn windbreaker against an unusual chill, said allowing nonrelatives to send money to Cubans is ``going to benefit life here a lot″ because dollars sent to the island circulate through the economy.

The Clinton administration, which courted Cuban-American strongholds in Florida, has refused to lift the economic embargo imposed by the United States after Castro took power in 1959. But the administration has explored ways to boost contacts with Cubans that don’t benefit the government.

The Orioles have tried to play exhibition games in Cuba since at least 1996, but the Treasury Department has rejected the requests as out of line with trade policy.

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