Once Upon a Time, The Havana Sugar Kings Ruled Cuban Baseball

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Today, Barack Obama will become the first American president to attend a baseball game on Cuban soil. The exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Serie Nacional squad is being billed as a big deal, and ESPN will be covering the proceedings at 1:30 p.m. EST. Eduardo Perez, son of Cuban Hall of Fame first baseman Tony Perez, will lead the broadcast crew.

Yes, this is a contest of major historical and cultural importance, but there’s probably more hype than substance. The Cuban national team is no longer a relevant force, and prominent players from the Rays are likely to assume mere cameo roles. That said, Havana’s crumbling Estadio Latinoamericano once witnessed a renaissance in Cuban pelota that most of us are too young to remember. Unfortunately, the seats in the 70-year-old venue can’t articulate those special moments.

Back in the 1950s, when Mafia-types (like the fictional Michael Corleone) were in their heyday, the Havana Sugar Kings were the toast of the town. From 1954 to 1960, the Sugar Kings played in the AAA International League, the closest thing to “The Show” during those times. The club produced MLB stars like Luis Arroyo, Tony Gonzalez, Cookie Rojas, Leo Cardenas, Preston Gomez, and Mike Cuellar, a lefty pitcher who was an architect of the “screwball.” The Sugar Kings were damn good and won the league championship in 1959, which ironically was the same year as the Cuban Revolution.

While wildly popular locally, the Sugar Kings would accumulate a sizable debt in their short existence, mostly due to logistical issues. Franchise owner Bobby Maduro had the pledge of Fidel Castro to bail the team out financially, despite the unstable political climate. A former pitcher himself with decent talent, Fidel spearheaded several fundraisers in an attempt to keep the team in Havana. That was not in the cards, however, when Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick pushed to have the Sugar Kings moved to Jersey City, New Jersey. Politics marked the end of a beautiful era when Cuba was a vital part of the baseball landscape. Bitter over the circumstances, Castro banned all professional sports in 1962 with a pro-Soviet philosophy that still exists today.

Will there ever be a time when Havana can expect to boast of another prestigious team like the Sugar Kings? Probably not in the near future. Then again, President Obama might be entertaining those thoughts today as he experiences real beisbol. Change takes time and tough compromise from both sides. When that happens, the seeds can be planted.