Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The game beyond

That circus catch will not change anything. The double play, clean as the swipe of a surgical scalpel, will not move hearts and minds. The man at the plate, turning hard on a fastball up and in, will not open the jails or free the unjustly imprisoned or stop the knock on the door at 3 a.m.

They played a baseball game in Havana yesterday, and, yes, it was an historic baseball game, and, yes,  the President of the United States, who knows his baseball and his history was in attendance.

 "Since 1959, about 100 players from Cuba have played for MLB clubs," President Obama said. "Four Cuban-born players are enshrined in Cooperstown, including Cincinnati Reds great Tony Perez. And just looking at one team -- say, my Chicago White Sox -- you can see Cuba's imprint through the generations.

"One of the White Sox's all-time greats, the late Minnie Minoso, was born near Havana. Jose Contreras and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez helped bring a World Series trophy to the South Side back in 2005. And one of our best players today -- and one of the game's best sluggers -- also comes from Cuba: first baseman Jose Abreu."

So, yes, an American MLB team (Tampa Bay) playing the Cuban national team was a big deal. But for all that a simple game has transcended politics and tied one nation to another despite the long enmity that has existed between them, it is still just a game.

The real change will happen elsewhere, where the political ramifications of opening relations with Cuba have been well documented. And if it will  be debated endlessly, there is a certain practicality to it.

That it was long past time to lift an embargo that has damaged the oppressive Castro regime not in the slightest, imposing hardship only on those that regime oppresses, is self-evident. That going beyond that to re-open the island to American free enterprise -- a move that has helped to erode similar regimes elsewhere in the world -- is less certain in its outcome, but there is precedent that it works. It gives the U.S. leverage to open those jails, to free those who are imprisoned. And that is something that would never happen if we continued on our well-trodden path.

And that baseball game yesterday?

Its value, and the value of an American president on Cuban soil, is symbolic only. And yet symbolism has its place. If that were not so, there wouldn't be a statue in Washington D.C. of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, as purely symbolic an act as this nation has ever seen. That it happened as the fierce struggle for Iwo Jima was barely begun makes it so; from a practical standpoint, raising that flag didn't mean anything, because there was so much ugly work to be done before the triumph it represented could be won. And yet, symbolically, it meant everything.

A baseball game in a stadium in which Jackie Robinson once played wasn't quite that. But what it represented was the same: The first step down a hard and uncertain road.

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