Sandy Alderson discusses meeting Fidel Castro during baseball’s trip to Cuba.
Sandy Alderson was more curious than anything else. One of MLB’s executives summoned to a dinner with Cuban leader Fidel Castro on the eve of MLB’s historic 1999 visit to Cuba kicking off, Alderson went into it remembering the tension of living on an American military base during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
“It wasn’t deep conversation,” said the Mets GM, who was then the MLB executive behind the league’s groundbreaking trip to Cuba. “For me, it was more like ‘Gee, this is the guy.’ I remember living on an Air Force base in England and being on alert during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A lot of time had spanned since then (when we met in 1999), and I just thought to myself, ‘So this is guy.’”
While arranging the historic visit to Cuba during which the Orioles played the Cuban national team, Alderson said that he did not deal directly with Castro, who died Friday at the age of 90. Behind the scenes, Alderson had his hands full just trying to get everything in order: getting tractors to tend to the fields and padding for the stanchions to cover the outfield fences into Cuba mostly from Canada, to pull off the game without violating the U.S. embargo.
Alderson’s only real chance to meet Castro was at that dinner.
Alderson said that Castro’s main topic of interest that night was talking to MLB executives about player development and how Latin American players who were already in the majors were benefitting their native countries.
“We didn’t have a long conversation, but he mostly wanted to talk economics of the game,” Alderson said, while adding the two didn’t discuss anything political. “He was interested in how other countries were benefiting from those Latin American players. He was interested in player development and the (MLB team) academies in Latin America.”
For Alderson, who was 15 years old and living on a U.S. base in England in 1962 when Castro faced off with the U.S. over the attempt to install Soviet nuclear weapons on the island 90 miles off the coast of Miami, it was a chance to see a historic figure who had affected his own life. Alderson’s father was in the Air Force at the time, so he remembered the feeling of uncertainty as a teenager on the base and among the American military officials during the crisis. Alderson himself went on to serve in the military.
The dinner was a chance to meet someone who had shaped American foreign policy for a generation.
“Castro, putting aside politics and all other issues, was a world-renowned figure and an icon, if you will,” Alderson said. “He had a celebrity, separate from the political and the more important issues of what he represented. So it was interesting to be there and meet him."
The ’99 visit culminated in a 3-2 Orioles victory in 11 innings over the Cuban national team, a game witnessed by some 50,000 Cuban fans at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana. Many hoped that would be the beginning of a new relationship between Cuba, the U.S. and MLB, but there was little immediate change.
Fifteen years later, President Obama seemed to open the channel for progress between the two countries in December, by re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba, but that is in question with President-elect Donald Trump.
Alderson and many Cuban experts said that they do not expect much to change after the passing of Castro, considering he had handed over most of the power to his younger brother, Raul, a decade ago.
For baseball, the evolving relationship with Cuba is complicated by the current negotiations over the new collective bargaining agreement. An international draft, which would include Cuban players, is reportedly part of what is holding up the negotiations between the union and MLB.
Alderson, however, has already seen things change since that visit.
“In the larger context of diplomatic relations, I have no idea what is going to happen, I am not (an) expert in that area,” Alderson said. “In respect to baseball, it seems to be evolving anyway, given the number of players that seem to be available, the greater ease of exit for those players now.
“So, we will see where it goes.”