A Southpaw in Havana

President Obama’s historic trip to Cuba concludes with an exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.

Enrique De La Osa / Reuters

In 1947, the soon-to-be dynastic Brooklyn Dodgers moved their spring training camp to Havana, Cuba. As a venue, it made good sense—Havana offered warm winter weather and stellar baseball facilities. But what made Havana most attractive was its isolation; Jackie Robinson, recently promoted from the minors, was just weeks away from breaking American professional baseball’s color barrier, and Branch Rickey, the team’s president and general manager, sought to shield the outfielder from untoward attention as he trained with the team.

The scheme actually worked too well. At the time, the talent on display in the Cuban League, racially integrated for decades by then, was such that the presence of American pros did little to inspire crowds to turn up for games. (Poor attendance that spring actually caused one preseason series between the Dodgers and the St. Louis Browns to be canceled.)

Last Sunday, nearly 70 springs and an embargo later, when Barack Obama, the No. 42 of American presidential politics, boarded Air Force One for his historic sojourn to Cuba, he did so with two guests of honor—Rachel and Sharon Robinson, the widow and daughter of Jackie. The symbolism wasn’t subtle: The Robinsons and the Obamas embody the cause and effect of the effacing of generations-old biases. Or, failing all of that, the United States and Cuba share a historic love of baseball.

Like most everything, the genesis story of baseball in Cuba is disputed. Writing in The Atlantic in 1984, Bruce Brown tells of the mythical 1866 arrival of an American ship at Matanzas Bay seeking to load up on Cuban sugar and unload American baseball. “Cubans joke that the Americans were motivated at least in part by a desire to sell baseball equipment,” he wrote, “nonetheless, they helped build a baseball diamond at Palmar del Junco, where the first baseball games in Cuban history were played.”

Another recasting of baseball’s origins characterize its debut not as a byproduct of cultural imperialism, but rather in subversive relief to the staid bullfighting rituals of the island’s colonial rulers. For a time under Spanish rule, the sport was actually banned in Cuba.

On Tuesday, when President Obama heads to Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano to watch the Tampa Bay Rays, the Calvin Coolidge of MLB squads, take on the Cuban National Team, it will serve as the grace note to a visit designed to minimize the differences that have long set the two countries at odds.

Many of those ideological divisions can be discerned through the lens of their shared pastime. In contrast to the United States, Cuban baseball has long been beset by the issues of gambling and corruption while the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs have remained more of a footnote. The American analogue is marked by high ticket prices and astronomical player contracts while even the best Cuban sluggers make a petty salary and admission to a game costs pennies for fans.

In one telling incident, U.S. officials came under scrutiny after initially banning the Cuban team from participating in the 2006 World Baseball Classic held in California. Writing in The New York Times, Roberto González Echevarría, a literature professor at Yale and Sagua La Grande-born expert on Cuban baseball, offered this scathing retort:

I appreciate the fans' desire to see some of the finest players in the world, but it hardly stretches the truth to say that those who want Cuba to participate are asking to be entertained by a team of slaves.

Consider this: the option not to play in the tournament, which has been exercised by the Yankees' Hideki Matsui among others, is not available to Cuban players - if the government tells them to play, they must. On the other hand, the regime can suspend a player from "Team Fidel," as the national team is often called, simply out of suspicion that he might defect. This happened to Orlando Hernández, before he managed to escape in a boat and eventually find fame with the Yankees.

Cuba, long a dominant force in international play, was eventually allowed to participate and won the silver.

When the Rays arrived in Havana over the weekend, several baseball emissaries accompanied the team, including MLB commish Rob Manfred and retired Yankees star Derek Jeter. Among the most notable dignities, however, was a player almost no one has ever heard of: Dayron Varona from Tampa’s minor-league affiliate.

The Cuban-born outfielder defected from the island in 2013 to pursue his dreams in the majors. Upon arriving in Havana on Saturday, Varona saw his family for the first time in three years.