President’s visit heartens Braves’ Cuban connection

The rapidly changing relationship between the United States and Cuba, highlighted Sunday by the first presidential visit to the Caribbean island in 88 years, just might turn Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez into a news junkie.

“I’m going to read more (real-world coverage) than I’ve ever read,” Gonzalez said Sunday. His interest in this story is highly personal, having been brought to the U.S. from Cuba when he was only 2 when his family fled the Castro regime in 1966.

While the three-day presidential visit has its critics — most notably Cuban-American senators Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez — one Cuban-American baseball manager is intrigued by the prospects.

“I leave (the debate) up to the politicians,” he said. “I don’t know the particulars of negotiations but as far as us going over there and opening it up, it’s a good sign. It’s heading to a good place, I think.

“I’m excited about the possibility of one day going back to a freer Cuba … have the people there happy.”

There is a powerful Cuban connection among the Braves, whose manager, bench coach (Carlos Tosca), left fielder (Hector Olivera) and third baseman (Adonis Garcia) were all born there. That kind of representation is mindful of the day before revolution choked off the supply of Cuban talent.

Currently, the island has birthed such notable players as the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, the Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes, the White Sox’ Jose Abreu and Yankees’ closer Aroldis Chapman. Last year, a reported record 27 Cuban players appeared in the big leagues. And Major League Baseball has forwarded a plan that would further open up the pipeline, eliminating the need for Cuban players to defect in order to seek a more lucrative future.

There are weighty issues woven throughout the thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba: opening travel between the countries; removing Cuba from the State Department list as a state sponsor of terrorism; and reconsideration of the long-standing trade embargo.

As Gonzalez said, “The No. 1 thing is the people there, not the baseball players.”

But there also is a baseball component to the diplomacy, feeding on Cuba’s passion for the game. The Tampa Bay Rays will hold a clinic Monday in Havana and play the Cuban national team Tuesday, a game President Barack Obama is scheduled to attend.

Keenly interested in the game will be the Braves’ Garcia. His brother Jose, eight years his junior, is a star outfielder on the Cuban team. In the 2014-15 season there, Jose led the Cuban league in hits, runs and RBI.

Garcia saw the game as a sign that his brother and other young Cubans in the future will have a much easier route to professional ball in the U.S. than the difficult and harrowing defections that both he and Olivera (2014) endured.

“When my brother might leave, he’s going to come here with no problem, but I had a lot of problems,” Garcia said, with Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez translating. “I left my family, left my brother and I didn’t know when I was going to see them again.

“I’m just very happy about the game. I hope it will open more doors for teams to go play there and an opportunity for players in Cuba, who are going to be seen not only by Tampa but a lot of teams in the big leagues.”

The last time a major league team ventured to Cuba was 1999, when the Baltimore Orioles played two exhibition games there. That also was the year of Gonzalez’s first major league assignment, joining Miami as a third base coach.

He does not remember that previous visit as being nearly as momentous or stirring the same level of optimism as the current one.

“There’s all the stuff that’s gone on before this trip,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve got negotiations going on with both countries. You see big corporations want to go in there, airlines going in there now. That’s opening up, whereas in ‘99 it wasn’t. This feels a lot better, like we’re heading towards a good thing with Cuba.”

These latest developments have Gonzalez thinking that he might one day actually get to visit the place where he was born. Perhaps even his parents, too, as the years pass and old animosities lose their edge.

And Gonzalez would like to get there before the change he imagines goes into overdrive.

“I want to go before it becomes McDonald’s and Starbucks and Chick-fil-A and all that,” he said with a smile.

— Staff Writer David O’Brien contributed to this article