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Luke Salas (MPP '10) Featured for Efforts to Make Baseball Bridge between U.S. and Cuba | The New York Times

Building a Bridge of Bats and Balls Across a Divide

By BEN STRAUSS | The New York Times
March 21, 2016

On the day he planned to make baseball history, Luke Salas got a ride in a 1950s-era clunker of a car to a field that was little more than a sandlot, in a small town outside Havana.

Salas, a Cuban-American former minor leaguer, had been training for a month with the provincial team there. Now, his father, a Havana native who fled the country with his family after Fidel Castro rose to power, was back in Cuba, watching from the slab of concrete behind home plate that passed for stands.

It was the summer of 2012 — more than two years before President Obama would announce the normalization of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States — and Salas, 27, had set off for Cuba thinking baseball could help the divide between his homeland and that of his ancestors. He intended to be the first American to compete in its baseball leagues since the Cuban Revolution nearly six decades ago.

In months of preparation, he had cleared a number of bureaucratic hurdles and secured the permission to make it possible. Or so he thought. Instead, minutes before the first pitch, a coach approached him in the dugout. An official in Cuba’s ministry of the interior had called. Salas could not play.

With baseball a key piece of President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba this week — he will attend an exhibition game Tuesday between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team — and as Major League Baseball continues its talks with Cuban sports officials about a new system for players to sign with American teams, Salas is a reminder that the pipeline of ballplayers might one day flow both ways.

His story is also instructive of how difficult that might be, as baseball in Cuba remains fraught with politics.

“I thought I could play and it would be this great cultural exchange,” Salas, 31, said recently. “But I became a political hot potato.”

Still, Salas is a link between baseball on both sides of the Florida Straits. In the years since his attempt to play, he has maintained close contacts with Cuban baseball officials, and he is leading an effort to donate a million baseballs to Cuba. Back home, several major league franchises have reached out to him, curious about the world he infiltrated.

“I can still be a bridge,” Salas said. “And I want to be.”

Salas arrived in Havana four years ago with grand plans. He enrolled in a film school in San Antonio de los Baños, a half-hour drive southwest of downtown Havana, to ensure his visa, and his brothers Scott and Jake traveled alongside him to film a documentary, which will be released this year. Salas made connections with several members of Cuba’s sports ministry. One new friend, Alberto Juantorena, a Cuban gold medal winner in track at the 1976 Olympics, helped him navigate the government’s red tape.

The initial dream was to play for the Industriales, the Yankees of Cuba and the most visible team in its National Series, the rough equivalent of the major leagues there. But it was suggested that he shoot a bit lower. With the film school located in Artemisa province, a team there became the new target. It was essentially a minor league club, but he could then make the jump to Artemisa’s National Series team for the fall season.

Salas was a four-year starter in the outfield at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and he was blessed with a powerful left-handed swing. At his first practice in Cuba, he swatted several home runs before batting practice was halted. The team said that with equipment shortages, it could not afford to lose any more balls.

The town, meanwhile, was riveted by Salas.

Residents showed up to the stadium just to watch him practice. They stopped him on the street to introduce themselves. He also made quick friends with teammates — proof, he said, that baseball could be the kind of diplomacy he imagined.

“We talked about music and girls,” said Salas, who speaks fluent Spanish. “It was just like my teammates on every other team I ever played on.”

Added Osnaldo Garriga, a catcher on the team who has since moved to Florida: “I realized it didn’t matter if we were Cuban or American, we were friends and teammates.”

Besides, Garriga said, “Luke was a very good ballplayer.”

Players were also intensely interested in Salas’s equipment: shiny sunglasses, metal cleats and the like.

“They had a hard time understanding that in the U.S., it was normal to go to a store and buy this stuff,” Salas said.

Everything was going well until the day of his official debut, when Salas was informed he could not play.

Crushed, he frantically tried to meet with government and baseball officials to resolve the problem.

He was told he needed to be a permanent Cuban resident, but when he returned in the fall with a residency card, thanks to the film school, he was still not allowed a tryout with Artemisa. The team’s manager explained that he needed the government’s permission. The government said it was the coach’s decision.

Salas still does not understand why the two sides could not reconcile — whether it was a bureaucratic mix-up or something more — but he never took the field.

“They didn’t know what to do with me,” Salas said. “I think a lot of it was control. If they let me play, they couldn’t control what might happen.”

There is a lesson here for Major League Baseball, Salas said. “They call it the cuatro caras, the four faces of Cuba,” he said. “You never quite know who you’re talking to or who is the ultimate decision-maker.”

Indeed, even as the Obama administration has paved the way for a new relationship between M.L.B. and the Cuban baseball federation, it remains unclear how the Cubans would structure an agreement to send their players to the major leagues.

Despite its outcome, the novelty of Salas’s Cuban adventure brought intrigue from all corners of American life when he returned.

State Department officials called him into their offices in Washington and told him that if he continued his efforts, he would violate the United States’ embargo of Cuba, be fined $250,000 and risk jail time. The rules on travel to Cuba and engaging in commerce were much stricter then than they are now, since Obama loosened them, but many regulatory obstacles remain.

Production companies approached him about a reality television show if he ever went back to Cuba to play ball. Major league teams, meanwhile, wanted intelligence on talented players on the island, and advice on where to build academies if, and when, they are one day allowed into Cuba.

“There was so much interest in the Cuban talent,” Salas said.

Salas grew up in Malibu, where his Cuban heritage was part of his childhood. He is a descendant of Cesar Salas, a revolutionary alongside Cuba’s national hero Jose Marti. Both died in the war of independence against Spain at the end of the 19th century.

Luke Salas’s father, Hank, left Cuba when he was 9 years old with his parents after Castro assumed power, but he never preached hatred of the regime. He took his family to Cuba in the late 1990s, and his son felt an immediate connection.

“I knew I wanted to go back,” Luke Salas said.

After Pepperdine, Salas signed with the Texas Rangers in the summer of 2007 and played with their Class A affiliate. He was cut after spring training the next year and returned to Pepperdine to get a graduate degree in public policy. The day after he signed the paperwork to enroll, he got an invitation to join the minor league system of the Seattle Mariners. He declined.

“He saw a different path,” Hank Salas said. “He saw a way to use baseball that was much bigger.”

The documentary about Luke Salas’s efforts, “The Cuban Dream,” is intended to help bring attention to the baseball donation effort, which he said has the full support of the Cuban baseball federation and sports ministry.

He intends to visit Cuba in April to discuss his charity plans, which he thinks are vital to aiding the struggling baseball infrastructure there, and will, in turn, help baseball grow globally.

“Baseball needs Cuba, which is double the size of the Dominican Republic, to be a strong baseball country,” he said, noting the growing influence of soccer on the island. “It starts with baseballs, then bats and gloves and spikes, and giving kids an opportunity to go out and practice and play.”

Salas no longer daydreams about suiting up for Industriales or even Artemisa. Today, he imagines American equipment reinvigorating the game and leading a baseball renaissance in Cuba — and maybe one day a winter league on the island, and young Cubans earning scholarships to play ball at American colleges.

“My playing days are probably over,” he said. “But there are other dreams for Cuba.”