President Obama scored a home run with the Cuban people by bringing along “baseball diplomacy” on his historic trip to the island nation this week.
For the first time in 17 years, a Major League Baseball team played an exhibition game there, as the Tampa Bay Rays took on the Cuban national team playing to a packed stadium Tuesday, while Obama and his family cheered from the stands alongside Cuban President Raul Castro.
The two leaders even joined the crowd in doing “the wave,” as it swept around around the arena (see video above).
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President Obama called baseball one of the things that “bind these two countries together,” and said they are the only country that might have more passion for the sport than the U.S.
The love of the game — and desire to play it on American diamonds — had always come at a steep price for Cuban players. More than 100 of the nation’s athletes have taken the field for big league teams since the countries broke ties in the late 1950s, despite the requirement that they renounce their citizenship to do so.
“That can’t be the kind of policies we want to promote,” President Obama told ABC News. “My hope is this becomes just one more part of this stitching back together of the United States and Cuba.”
Obama this week became the first U.S. President to visit Cuba since 1928. In the past 15 months, he’s pushed steadily to renew ties with the communist neighbor 90 miles from the coast of Florida despite more than a half-century of Cold War tension.
His speech, televised nationally there, pressed for Cuba to improve its human rights record and take advantage of new trade opportunities with American businesses, even while his administration pushes Congress to lift the trade embargo levied on the island in 1960.
Three dozen Congress members and a large delegation of business leaders accompanied the president on his trip to emphasize that point.
But the athletic line drives and base hits may have accomplished more than diplomats and executives could ever do to get his message across to the Cuban people.
Tuesday’s game was the first between teams from Cuba and MLB since 1999 when the Baltimore Orioles played an exhibition game in Havana.
The Rays came out on top, 4-1 in Tuesday’s game, but the Cuban fans didn’t seem to mind. In diplomacy, like baseball, it isn’t always about winning or losing — but how you play the game.
(WATCH the White House video above, and WATCH the short baseball interview with Obama below)
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