With MLB in Cuba it’s hard to avoid political landmines

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Major League Baseball — and President Obama and ESPN and large parts of the sports media industrial complex — are in Cuba this week. They’re there for an historic game between the Rays and the Cuban National Team tomorrow which is serving as the opening ceremonies, more or less, of a thawing relationship between the United States and Cuba.

But while this marks a whole new chapter in both the world of baseball and international relations, and while everyone is adopting the language of reconciliation and rebirth, there are still a lot of potential rhetorical landmines. For example, how does one refer to Cuba’s no-longer-ruling but still-living dictator, Fidel Castro?

Baseball has gotten into controversy with this in the past. Or at least one guy in it did. A few years ago, just weeks into his tenure as the Marlins manager, Ozzie Guillen. found himself in hot water when he was quoted saying that he has “love” for Castro and respected that he stayed in power for so long. That kind of sentiment does not fly in Miami, home to thousands upon thousands of refugees from the Castro regime and orders of magnitude more of their relatives and descendants. Guillen was forced to apologize and there’s a good argument to be made that his managerial stint with the Marlins was doomed from that moment on as a result.

So, the lesson for baseball: be careful with your praise of Fidel Castro.

Unless you’re in Cuba, of course, in which case you need to be careful of your condemnation. ESPN learned that over the weekend when, as a part of its multi-platform coverage of the Cuban trip, it tweeted out a promo referring to Castro as a “savior and scourge” and mentioning his “love for sports.” The tweet, since deleted and apologized for, likely didn’t please ESPN’s hosts in Cuba due to the “scourge” language. At the same time, the “savior” bit and his reference of his “love of sports” probably didn’t make victims of Castro’s brutality and repression feel too cheerful. “Oh, really? He loved sports? Well, in that case I’m no longer upset that my family was destroyed and I had to leave my homeland . . .”

ESPN was transparent about the change, and I don’t envy them being in the position they’re in. After more than 50 years of cold war, the beginnings of normalization are going to be fraught with sensitive feelings and diplomatic dilemmas. It’s a fact that ESPN (and baseball and all things U.S.) is an invited guest in Havana and that the Castros and their allies still run Havana. Some level of . . . diplomacy is required. At the same time, to tell the story of Cuba and Cuban sports accurately, which is a big part of what ESPN is there to do, requires that one be honest about history. That honesty requires seeing Castro for what he was and is just as it requires seeing the U.S. and the Soviets and everyone else who had an impact on Cuban history for what they were and are. That goes for the bad and the good, however one wishes to characterize those things. It’s a thorny as hell task, I am sure.

History has shown that sports are a great tool of diplomacy. Sports networks aren’t quite as well-suited for it. At least if they want to avoid controversy of some kind, which they always, always do.