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Rays ready to play ball with Cuba as economic sanctions eased

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When nations place politics in the way of sports, the tricky thing isn’t knowing when to start. It’s knowing when to stop.

For South Africa, that was not knowing when to boycott the Olympics. It was back in 1992, when the country decided to rejoin.

No one much cared that the Soviet bloc boycotted in 1984 (or the U.S. In 1980). That just meant more medals for the home country.

And so it has gone. This nation doesn’t want to play. That one decides to sit it out.

It is that way, too, with baseball and the economic boycott of Cuba by the United States. It started a half-century ago when Dwight Eisenhower announced sanctions, and two years later when John Kennedy announced stiffer ones. In that time, only once – the Baltimore Orioles in 1999 – has a team from the U.S. played Cuba.

Until now.

Today at 2 p.m., the Tampa Bay Rays take on the Cuban National team in front of Barack Obama with the world watching. And, meanwhile, there are those who still think that a 55-year boycott was not enough.

Republicans, of course, oppose Obama, which is nothing new. So, too, do some journalists, pointing out that Cuba continues to have political prisoners. There is a feeling that not enough has changed in Cuba for the lessening of sanctions. On ESPN Monday – and in the Miami Herald – columnist Dan LeBatard – whose grandparents were exiled by Fidel Castro’s regime – wrote of the continuing pain and mistrust of the Cuban government.

On the other hand, it’s been 55 years, and the U.S. has embargoed away, and still, there have been political prisoners.

So when is the right time to turn the page? For Obama, who says the embargo has not worked, it is now. For him, it starts with baseball.

Oh, there will be other signs that the nations have forgiven. Carnival Cruise Lines plans a Miami-to-Havana cruise. The resorts of Cuba are already advertising. Plane fares may be slashed in the coming months.

And it starts with a change-up from Matt Moore.

In some ways, today’s game is an exhibition game. A friendly, Moore called it. Everyone is smiling and nodding and happy to see each other. The players talk of growth and understanding. And maybe it starts here. Maybe the nations have been in a stare-down far too long.

Cuba is proud of its baseball heritage. In this country, we have seen Luis Tiant and Bert Campaneris, Minnie Minoso and Cookie Rojas, Tony Oliva and Tony Gonzalez. Certainly, in the last 15 years or so, there has been too much profiteering from agents helping players to sneak away in the night.

Today, all of that changes. Today, the Rays and Cubans unlock each other’s histories. Today, there is baseball.

Play ball.

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.

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