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The timelessness of America's pastime

John Zarrella

By John Zarrella
CNN Miami Bureau Chief

April 1, 1999
Web posted at: 11:24 a.m. EST (1624 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

The politics of baseball, or lack thereof

One man's influence

Annual rites of renewal

MIAMI (CNN) -- For America's pastime, there hasn't been a spring like this in 40 years.

The season of rebirth saw the passing of a baseball immortal, as Joe DiMaggio died peacefully at his home in Hollywood, Florida, at age 84.

At spring training in Jupiter, Florida, Mark McGwire -- crowned last year as the Major League single-season home-run king -- told reporters how it would be. "Big Mac" said he would talk about his record 70 home runs until the start of this year's season in April, then no more; he would leave the past to the past.

And last Sunday, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, dressed in his green military uniform, walked from third base across the diamond in Havana to shake hands with Baltimore Orioles players. The last time major leaguers played in Cuba was 1959. Castro had just taken power.

And so this game, played with a two-and-15/16ths-inch white ball stitched in red, moves from the sports page to the front page and back again, with a timeless relevance.

The politics of baseball, or lack thereof

In Cuba, baseball is more than a game. It is part of the fabric of life. Cubans breathe baseball.

Orioles-Cuba baseball game
The Baltimore Orioles beat Cuba's team 3-2 Sunday, but to many the game was more than just a game   

On an island where one day washes into the next, this game was something new to talk about, and for days leading up to the game, it was all they talked about.

Pedro, the head bellman at the Havana Libre Hotel, wanted to know how good the Orioles were. He was concerned about Cuba's pitching. It was not as good as in the past, he feared.

At breakfast, waiters moaned that not all of Cuba's best would be playing. A few were involved in Cuba's own World Series, going on at the same time. I told them the Orioles (forgive me Baltimore fans) weren't the best either.

In old Havana, at a spot called the "hot corner" (a reference to a nickname for third base), hundreds of Cuban men gather every day to argue, not talk, baseball. One afternoon last week, I found them true to form, pointing fingers and jawing at the top of their voices, blustering about the task the Cuban team faced.

To me, it was interesting that here I heard no one talking about the politics of baseball, about whether the Orioles should be coming from the United States to Cuba to play the game.

It was, of course, a huge issue in Miami, where the Cuban exile community felt the game legitimized a regime many contend brutally oppresses anyone who opposes it.

Cuban President Fidel Castro, the First Fan of baseball in Havana   

Baltimore and Cuba played before a standing-room-only crowd of about 50,000 people at Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano stadium. As most people know by now, the Orioles won, 3-2, in 11 innings.

Did Fidel Castro get some mileage out of it? Sure. As he stood during "The Star-Spangled Banner," at least some people watching in the United States were probably thinking Castro's not such a bad guy.

Ultimately, the game's impact may have been like a ripple on the water: very subtle. Cubans stood as the national anthems of both countries were played. What was going through their minds? At least one Cuban American in the crowd cried.

One man's influence

There were many tears the day DiMaggio died. If Cuba was the high point of the spring, March 8 was the low point.

DiMaggio had been ill for months. In February, he didn't make it to the Joe DiMaggio Legends Game, a children's hospital fund-raiser held in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. It was the first time he missed the event in a decade.

DiMaggio's death gave us reason to pause and think back to a time when the game was different. When life was different. It was an opportunity to gauge how far we'd come from where we were. How much we'd changed. Was it like a young, raw slugger getting better with age, or like a pitcher losing his stuff with time?

A few years ago, at the Legends Game, my crew and I stopped DiMaggio to ask him a few questions as he walked to the mound to say a few words. When he got to the mound, the microphone didn't work.

On his way back to the dugout, he stopped, looked at us, pointed his finger and said, "You asked too many questions!" -- somehow implying our questions were the reason for the mike's failure. Because it was the great DiMaggio, for a half-second I almost believed him.

Such was one great man's effect.

Annual rites of renewal

Spring, like no other time of year, simply doesn't have time to dwell on death. Perhaps baseball is so revered because it can honor its past but live only in the present. And every spring, it makes a new beginning.

A Mark McGwire homer is a Mark McGwire homer, to spring training fans   

On the first day McGwire showed up for spring training, hundreds of fans lined the field between first and third base. Many of them told me they weren't St. Louis Cardinals fans. They were McGwire fans.

As he took batting practice, the crowd seemed to hold its breath and then exhale in a collective "wow" every time he hit one over the fence, which seemed to be on almost every swing.

As the cameras rolled and shutters clicked and fans wowed, I walked from behind home plate, down the left field line and past the outfield fence. As I got beyond the fence, a ball came crashing from the sky.

I walked over, picked it up and looked back at home plate where McGwire stood. I thought to myself, nobody's going to believe me.

But I believed it myself. And half under my breath, I said, "Wow."

y: CNN's Jeff Flock says there's life after '62' in baseball, but maybe not another 'moment'
September 18, 1998

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