MIAMI — It was the baseball game many Cubans thought might never happen: Players on both sides of the Florida Straits, separated through the years by defections and exile, reunited on the same field before a joyful crowd in Miami.
Visas were issued. Contracts signed. Dates set to play ball Aug. 10 and 11. Then it all fell apart.
On Tuesday, organizers announced the matchup had been canceled. Florida International University, which was set to host the event, was pulling out, citing a contractual matter.
In Cuba, the cancellation was dismissed as another sign of Miami's intolerance of athletes and musicians who perform on the island. In Miami, Alejandro Canton, who helped invite the players, vowed to find another stadium and show the Cuban players would be welcomed, including those strongly supportive of the communist regime.
"We're going to do it in Miami," Canton told journalists and baseball fans at a restaurant in Miami's Little Havana. "And we're going to do it with those who were militants and those who were not."
Baseball is Cuba's national sport, and the passion it generates hasn't been lost in exile. Some of the most talented Cuban players have gone on to play in World Series championships in the U.S. after defecting. And many fans follow both the U.S. teams they have adopted as their own, and the ones they grew up watching in Cuba.
But in the years following the 1959 revolution, the sport has become entangled in politics.
Cuba and the U.S. have played each other in international friendlies during periods of cultural and sporting exchange between the Cold War-era rivals, despite the longstanding trade embargo and lack of full diplomatic relations. But the island's most famous team, Industriales, has not played on U.S. soil. And players who defect are deemed traitors.
The contention the sport can generate was seen just last week, when Cuban pitcher Misael Siverio decided to defect during an exhibition game in Iowa. Cuban manager Victor Mesa said Siverio had betrayed the team.
"You may see the gentleman that defected working as a laborer," Mesa scoffed.
Politics have gotten in the way of baseball in Miami, too.
Few can forget the ruckus former Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen caused last year when he professed admiration for Fidel Castro. He tearfully apologized, but never entirely regained the support of the South Florida community and was fired six months later.
Still, Cuban fans on both sides of the divide have never entirely shut each other out. That's particularly true of those who grew up on the island and remember many of the players who were going to play in Miami.
"I watch Cuban baseball," said Felix Diaz, who left Cuba 15 years ago. "I have a satellite. I can tell you about all the players."
Seizing on the sport's broad fan base in Miami, Canton began trying to organize a game reuniting former Industriales baseball players, from both on the island and in the U.S.
Industriales is the equivalent Major League Baseball's New York Yankees. The team was created after the revolution, when the government reorganized baseball into a series of amateur leagues. Fidel Castro himself has been an avid fan of the sport since his student days, and kept it a part of daily life on the island. Industriales was meant to represent the country's workers.
The Havana-based team is the most popular in Cuba and has won the most national titles – and the enmity of rivals.
"It's the team that stirs the most passion," said Ernesto Ruiz Faxas, a sports commentator formerly on Cuban TV and radio who arrived in Miami months ago.
Canton, a former architect who left Cuba in 1999, has brought numerous Cuban actors and musicians to Miami with his company, Somos Cuba Entertainment Group.
He said Cuban players on the island and in the U.S. all agreed to the game.
The roster included Cuban Olympic silver medalist Javier Mendez and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, who played with Industriales and – after defecting – won four World Series championships, three with the New York Yankees, Canton said.
All the players Canton invited are over 40 and all once played for Industriales.
"They're all among the best Cuban baseball players," Canton said.
In the first match, players from Cuba would play against those now living in the United States. In the second, they would reunite under one team and play against a group representing another Cuban province.
Rey Ordonez, a former Industriales player who defected in 1993 and went on to play with three Major League Baseball teams, was one of the veterans slated to play.
"I haven't seen many of the people who played with me in Cuba in at least 20 years," he said.
Getting the visas took just a few weeks, Canton said, but finding a venue in Miami proved challenging.
The University of Miami and the Marlins both seemed interested at first but backed out. Florida International University met all specifications and a contract was signed, Canton said.
Canton began promoting the event. Less than a week later, however, he received a letter from FIU saying the university was exercising its "right to cancel" the games.
A university statement said FIU was canceling due to a "contractual matter" and a spokeswoman declined to elaborate.
Cuban media concluded politics were to blame.
"Miami: Intolerance cancels Industriales game," read a headlined story on the state-run website Cubadebate.
"Miami is legendary for its intolerance," the article added. "It's been seen in recent years with the burning of works by Cuban painters, the use of steamrollers over the records of singers who perform on the island, or in acts of repudiation against Cuban musicians."
Canton vowed at a news conference Tuesday to keep trying to organize the event. He answered questions from a group that was equal parts reporters and baseball aficionados at the back of a restaurant, across from a park where old Cuban men play dominoes.
"What can we do, the fans, to support?" asked Yoel Marrero, who came representing a group of salsa dancers.
"I'm not going to give any ideas," Canton said. "But I will say to all the fans that the game will happen."
But after the cancellation was announced, one opposition group in Miami said it was pleased.
"That team represents the Castros," said Miguel Saavedra, head of a group called Vigilia Mambisa that protested outside the Marlins stadium last year following Guillen's comments. "We're totally in disagreement."
Ordonez lamented that, at least for now, that he won't be seeing his former teammates reunited onfield.
"The game was going to be nice," he said. "But we were also going to catch up on life."
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