USA TODAY International Edition

Cuba’s WBC Miami game fraught with tension

- Bob Nightengal­e

MIAMI – It may be the most polarizing game in the history of the World Baseball Classic, with protests and tightened security surroundin­g loanDepot Park, when Cuba takes the field Sunday evening against Team USA in Little Havana.

Tension, resentment and rage have been building in Miami’s Cuban community since the team beat Australia last week to advance to the semifinals.

“A lot of people, even if they’ve been going back and forth,” Angela Torres, 70, tells USA TODAY Sports, “they’ll still be upset about it. I know there’s going to be trouble. Not violence, I mean protests. There will be a lot of yelling.”

Torres is the mother of Vince Torres, chief marketing officer of tournament sponsor DirecTV, who attended her first profession­al baseball game Saturday when Venezuela lost to the USA 9- 7. She won’t be at the Cuban game, but she’ll be intently watching like the rest of her family.

Torres was 10 years old when her family came over from Cuba with her parents in the aftermath of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

Her father, Angel Paez, proudly fought against Fidel Castro’s forces in the failed operation supported by the U. S. government and was shot in the knee. He was imprisoned for 20 months and finally released in December 1962 when the U. S. government paid $ 53 million for food and medicine to Cuba.

He and his family came to Miami on a cargo ship one month later.

And never returned.

“No, I’ve never felt the need or the want to go back,” Angela Torres says. “Not once. Not while Castro was there.”

Vince Torres says: “I would love to go to Cuba, but I will not go there until Cuba is free. That’s a personal decision out of loyalty to my grandfathe­r. I don’t hold it against anybody else. It’s just personal.”

The mixed feelings among Cuban Americans are similar to the players themselves. This is the first year that MLB players are permitted to play for Cuba. Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert from the Chicago White Sox are playing for Cuba, along with former All- Star Yoenis Cespedes.

Kansas City Royals closer Aroldis Chapman, the seven- time All- Star and World Series champion who was born in Holguin, Cuba, refuses to play for Cuba. Tampa Bay Rays star outfielder Randy Arozarena, who defected from Cuba in 2015, is playing for Mexico, becoming a Mexican citizen last year.

“You can see the conflict, the cultural element of it is so interestin­g,” says Vince Torres, 49. “The challenge, unfortunat­ely, is because some folks have given up so much to be in this country. There’s this political hangover that resides in people’s minds that I think taints their view.

“I think the passion and loyalty to Team USA is undeniable, but they have this conflict, because it’s their heritage that’s on the other side. Players that come from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, these players will come play in the United States and be successful but they go home in the offseason or visit family.

“A lot of the Cubans that have defected or play in the United States, they can’t go home to their country.”

The Cuban team understand­s what awaits and refuses to get into any public political debates, saying it wishes to simply be on a winning baseball squad.

They can create a lot of national pride by winning the WBC, at least back home, no matter how it would be viewed in Miami.

“The players are focused and they will go all out to win,” Cuba manager Armando Johnson says, “no matter the position of the crowd. This is not going to affect them. It’s going to be a tough scenario, a tough atmosphere, but we are both physically and mentally prepared for this.”

Cuba President Miguel Diaz- Canel has supported the national team, even wishing them goodbye in person when the players and coaches left for the WBC.

The dissenters will turn their backs on their team, condemning anything to do with the country.

“It is of the utmost disrespect to the entire Cuban exile community that this team is here,” Esteban Bovo, the Republican mayor of Hialeah, said in a statement to The New York Times. “I am outraged, and I stand with the families of the political prisoners who are currently being tortured in the regime’s prisons without being able to see their families. I stand with the opposition, and all those who peacefully express their opinion about the baseball game.”

For the Torres family, well, they just want to enjoy the WBC as baseball fans. Vince Torres, growing up and attending Coral Gables High School, played with major league stars Mike Lowell and Eli Marrero and against Alex Rodriguez, Shannon Stewart and Doug Mientkiewi­cz. He watched his first big- league game at Dodger Stadium and now is a passionate Dodger fan living in Los Angeles.

But for this tournament, there are no mixed feelings.

“We all are very close to our Cuban culture, and we are definitely Cuban American,” Vince Torres said, “but the loyalty and patriotism that my grandfathe­r had for the United States was second to none. …

“There’s a lot of folks that sacrificed a lot to come to this country, and if the story is told right, people will appreciate that and appreciate the personal conflicts that exist as to why this is different for a Cuban fan in America than others that have immigrated into this country.”

 ?? EUGENE HOSHIKO/ AP ?? Cuban players celebrate after defeating Australia in their World Baseball Classic quarterfinal.
EUGENE HOSHIKO/ AP Cuban players celebrate after defeating Australia in their World Baseball Classic quarterfinal.

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