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My Cuban Adventures + Shout-Outs to Chris Davis & Peyton Manning

In many ways January is the most hopeful month of the year. Days are finally getting longer, football mania is ebbing, and “pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training” – still the greatest sentence in the English language – will become true in a month.

My year got off to a rousing start with my first trip to Cuba. The Cuban amateur leagues were on hiatus but I was gratified to meet some vibrant Cuban baseball personages who deeply love their baseball. They are very well-informed about American baseball, not surprisingly because our major leagues to Cubans have long been known as The Great Leagues.

I arrived in Havana only a couple of weeks after the mid-December goodwill tour of prominent American baseball honchos Joe Torre, Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, and two-time Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw. Sigfredo Barros, the longtime baseball correspondent for Granma the official Cuban newspaper, was touched at the scene of Kershaw bending down to work with youngsters at baseball clinics in and outside Havana.

To the pleasant surprise of Barros and other Cubans, the Castro government gave permission for recent defectors from Cuba to join Major League Baseball’s delegation. In the past the families of defectors suffered retribution.

Last month, however, Dodgers rightfielder Yasiel Puig, White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, former Chisox shortstop now with the Padres Alexei Ramirez, and former Reds catcher now with the Cardinals Brayan Pena were welcomed warmly. Tears flowed when Abreu was reunited with his young son whom he had not seen in three years.

There is a possibility that the Tampa Bay Rays will play exhibition games in Cuba during spring training. The last major league team to visit was the Orioles during 1999 spring training. They won a close game in Havana but were routed in a rematch in June in Baltimore.

Memories of those games remain vivid for Cubans. In a touching gesture of friendship, Luis Zayas, 77, gave me the gift of his press pass from the March 1999 game. Zayas played for the Havana Sugar Kings in the 1950s when they were a farm team of the Cincinnati Reds in the International League.

Zayas later played in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization and was in spring training in 1960 in Vero Beach, Florida when he was faced with a momentous decision. He was in love with a woman in Havana but he knew that if he returned to Cuba he could not continue his American career.

In 1960 the Sugar Kings were relocated to Jersey City, the American embargo began, and Fidel Castro decreed that only amateurs could play in the Cuban leagues. Zayas returned home to marry, but to continue his pro career he journeyed to Mexico where he played for the next ten years.

Afterwards he went back home to Cuba where by the mid-1970s he was able to work as a trainer for Cuban athletes. Among those he has worked with are such prominent defectors as Yoenis Cespedes, whose hitting led the Mets to the World Series, and switch-hitting Kendry Morales who won a World Series ring in 2015 as the excellent designated hitter for the Kansas City Royals.

“There is no easy solution to the question of defection,” Ismail Sene, a prominent baseball authority, told me. But he is glad that after decades of discord there is growing communication between Cuban and American baseball officials.

Sene, who served the government for 23 years in Czechoslovakia, has never lost his interest in baseball. He hosts a weekly sports show on Cuban television and is proud that he shares the same home town as Miguel “Mike” Gonzalez, a longtime catcher in the major leagues who coined the pithy description of a suspect player, “Good field, no hit.”

Let’s hope the Tampa Bay Rays do get to visit Havana and other Cuban cities during spring training. Love of baseball in Cuba dates to shortly after the American Civil War and despite the tortured relations with the U.S. since 1959 the passion happily persists.

Re: the Orioles winter – To the surprise of many including yours truly, the Orioles re-signed slugging first baseman Chris Davis to a seven-year contract reporting worth $161 million. His aggressive agent Scott Boras tried to get a bidding war going with other teams but Davis likes Baltimore and manager Buck Showalter and he hits best at Camden Yards.

With the re-signing of reliever Darren O’Day for four years and catcher Matt Wieters for one year, the Orioles’ core remains basically intact. They need to bolster the starting pitching – what team doesn’t? – but there is more hope in Charm City for 2016 than many of us thought after the disappointing 2015 season ended.

And a final note on football – I’m glad that Peyton Manning gets another shot at a Super Bowl opportunity and against the Patriots and Tom Brady next week. Because of injury and age Manning is a shell of his former self but he managed to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers to give his Denver Broncos another shot at Super Bowl redemption.

That’s all for now – always remember: Take it easy but take it.
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