Havana, Cuba – The ban between the U.S. and Cuba has been lifted…when it comes to baseball.
Not that there ever really was a baseball ban but U.S. college baseball players will face a Cuban team this summer, renewing play after 16 years with a five-game series between nations with bitter relations.
The games between college national teams will be played July 5-9 in Havana's Latino Stadium as a warm up for the Haarlem Baseball Week tournament in the Netherlands that month.
"We could not be more excited or proud," USA Baseball executive director Paul Seiler said in Havana, where officials signed a letter of agreement.
Little League exchanges between the countries are common, and in 1999 the Baltimore Orioles became the first major league team to play in Cuba since the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Now, the Cuba-college agreement re-establishes what was an annual series between 1987 and 1996.
"Today is a day of happiness for baseball," said Antonio Castro, vice president of the Cuban Baseball Federation and a son of Fidel Castro.
"It is very important for the U.S. team, and for Cuba it's beyond explanation what it means to enjoy this kind of warmup," Castro said during a news conference at the stadium. "It is important for our athletes to have matches at another level of baseball."
Cuba and the United States see eye-to-eye on very little, but do share a deep passion for baseball. At times, baseball diplomacy has been used to try to bridge the gulf.
Seiler and Castro declined to comment on whether the series could help improve strained ties between Havana and Washington, saying the focus of the day was baseball not politics.
The last time Cuba and USA Baseball played was 1996, a particularly bad year for relations. On Feb. 24 of that year, the Cuban Air Force shot down two Cessna planes piloted by an anti-Castro exile group that Havana accused of entering Cuba's airspace to drop leaflets on the island. Later that year, President Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act, toughening the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
USA Baseball said in a statement that Cuba would bring its national college team to the U.S. in summer 2013. U.S. college players last visited the island in 1993.
The U.S. team will be coached by Tennessee's Dave Serrano. Players will be invited over the course of the college baseball season.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.