Alton GonzalezESPN staff writer4 minutes of reading
MIAMI — Cuban jerseys, hats and flags were draped directly outside Lone Depot Park on Sunday afternoon, minutes before the Cuban team began its World Baseball Classic semifinal game against the United States.
It was within the gates. Across from them, dozens of protesters gathered in front of about 15 police officers with signs speaking out against Cuba’s communist government and political prisoners still held on the island.
“Libertad!” A man kept shouting.
“Freedom to Cuba!” Another girl screamed from time to time.
Sunday marked the first time since the start of Fidel Castro’s rule in more than 60 years that Cuba’s national baseball team visited Miami, specifically Little Havana, the Cuban enclave home to many evacuees. 1960s. Few could separate its baseball from politics, and many could not, for one night, encased in a baseball stadium.
It extends beyond fans.
“There’s a lot of anxious feelings, to be very honest with you,” said Team USA third baseman Nolan Arenado, the son of Cuban immigrants, who said he had a long chat with his family about the Cuban presence in the morning.
“You know, if it wasn’t for the sacrifices my grandparents made for my parents, I don’t know if I would be the player I am today, so I feel a lot of emotion towards that. I respect them, I respect the players, but we have a job.
Cheers and faint “Cuba!” The chant was heard when the Cuban flag was raised during the pregame introductions, but the Chicago White Sox’s Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert Jr. — the first two major leaguers to play for the Cuban national team — were given a concession between Cuba and the United States. Govs for this year’s World Baseball Classic — full blown.
Moncada and Robert represent two of the biggest Cuban-born stars in the major leagues, but many have not been invited or shown interest by the Cuban Baseball Federation. In many cases, both are applied. The list of absentees includes Jose Abreu, Yordon Alvarez, Aroldis Chapman, Yasmani Crandall, Yandy Diaz and, most notably, Randy Arosarena, who plays in Mexico, where he came from after fleeing Cuba in 2015.
Arrozarena, who has been adamant about not representing his birthplace, said earlier on Monday that he would be attending the game and cheering on Cuba – but for different reasons.
“I want to face Cuba in the final,” Arosarena said in Spanish, “and hopefully, we beat them.”
Minutes before Adam Wainwright threw out the ceremonial first pitch, six police officers formed a rough-territory warning lane to double the usual presence at this game. Heavy police security is expected at Monday’s game. Meanwhile, ballpark security officials were told to be diligent in spotting signs of violations of the stadium’s code of conduct, which includes restrictions on language “regarding political communication, social and economic matters or other statements that undermine civil liberties.”
Clothing supporting the Cuban baseball team was prominent throughout the ballpark, but many fans entered wearing T-shirts that read “Patria y Vida,” an homage to the popular anti-communist slogan and song associated with the 2021 Cuban protests. Literally translated as “homeland and life”, the expression is a play on the Cuban motto “patria o muerte” (“homeland or death”). One of its biggest supporters is legendary Cuban pitcher Livan Hernandez, who won a World Series with the Miami Marlins in 1997 and threw out the ceremonial first pitch Monday alongside former teammate Jeff Conine.
Despite his long history with Cuban manager Armando Johnson, Hernandez said he did not feel comfortable shaking hands with him. As Cuba’s coach, Johnson is naturally tied to the Cuban government, where culture and politics are naturally intertwined on the island.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for everybody who’s in trouble or who’s incarcerated for things that shouldn’t be,” Hernandez told ESPN’s Marley Rivera. “Armando Johnson has been my coach since I was a kid, but there are things ahead of us where we disagree and I’m here with ‘Patria y Vida’ 150 percent.”
Hernandez, whose brother Orlando also left Cuba, said he expected the crowd’s reaction to be “divided.” That was evident in the second innings itself. A “Libertad” chant broke out, but the loudest cheer for the Cuban team was heard after a song by Yadir Drake. Three batters later, when Moncada came back to bat, another “Patria y Vida” chant was heard.
A few hours ago, Arenado was asked how he viewed adding major league players to the Cuban national team.
“I think I’ve heard mixed reviews,” Arenado said. “I’ve asked people about it. I’ve asked Cuban players, Cuban ex-players what they think about it. Maybe I’ll keep it to myself. But listen, I think people are proud to represent their country like I am. I’m proud to represent the United States. Why would they do it? I understand what they want to do. I think there’s a little bit more of a problem there, and I think people have a lot of problem with it. But I don’t think that’s something I should talk about. .”
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