Did you know there were different species of orioles? We all know that there’s a Baltimore Oriole - of the winged and baseball-playing varieties. There are also Puerto Rican, Hispaniolan and Bahama birds. And, believe it or not, a Cuban Oriole. They all used to be lumped into the same species, until elevated into individual statuses in 2010. The Cuban Oriole is endemic to the Caribbean island nation, and its habitats are tropical and subtropical forests, particularly those boasting mangrove trees. Apparently, orioles love their mangroves. Who knew?
There were once Cubans and Orioles in Baltimore, however, and there were no mango groves to be found. Some mojitos, yes. Protestors, definitely. Rowdy fans, the likes of which had never before been seen and heard in a Charm City baseball park, made the night of May 3, 1999 one to remember. Oh, and there was a body-slamming umpire whose actions won’t soon be forgotten.
Several years of lobbying by O’s owner Peter Angelos, and a more welcoming political climate in the late 1990s, helped get the groundbreaking home-and-home exhibition series between the Orioles and the Cuban national team off the ground. The first game of the baseball version of a soccer friendly took place in Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano on March 28, 1999, at the end of spring training. Harold Baines’ 11th-inning single scored Will Clark with the decisive run, Charles Johnson socked a two-run homer and future major leaguer Jose Contreras pitched eight innings of two-hit relief with 10 strikeouts. More than 55,000 packed the ballpark, including commissioner Bud Selig, Angelos and Cuban leader Fidel Castro. After the game, the O’s jetted back to Miami and resumed spring training in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The series concluded about five weeks later with the game at Camden Yards, which drew a raucous crowd of Cuban Americans who were thrilled at the rare opportunity to cheer for their homeland heroes. They rooted loudy - and then some, making the 56-minute rain delay at the beginning of the game a lot more tolerable. They brought musical instruments, tooting trumpets and banging drums throughout the game, their accompaniment reaching a crescendo at the appropriately exciting juncture of the game. They danced in the aisles of the upper deck, turning a baseball game into a cross between Mardi Gras and New Year’s Eve. They hooted and hollered and seemed incapable of running out of energy. Longtime O’s fans first marveled quietly at their Cuban counterparts’ fervent passion. Then, some of them joined in (some, no doubt, fueled by a few too many mojitos, an addition to the libations available for purchase at the game).
The Cuban fans had a lot to cheer about. Their team knocked O’s starter Scott Kamieniecki out in the second inning, and even though the O’s rocked Contreras for a similar early exit, the Cubans won 12-6. Shortstop Danel Castro was 4-for-4, Omar Linares (considered the greatest player in the nation’s history) reached base six times and designated hitter Andy Morales crushed a three-run homer. The O’s - even Cal Ripken Jr., pictured above meeting with members of the Cuban team in postgame ceremonies - struggled against reliever Norge Luis Vera, who worked six shutout innings. Delino DeShields hit a three-run homer for the O’s.
While there were choreographed protests outside the stadium before the contest, the most memorable political dissenter would have been the unfortunate anti-Castro protester who ran onto the field in the fifth inning. Just beyond second base, he was met by Cuban umpire Cesar Valdez, who thwarted him with a body slam that would have made Gorilla Monsoon proud. “Above all, I am Cuban,” Valdez told reporters after the game. “I just thought it was the right way to do it.”
Photos used in the Flashback feature come from the Orioles’ photo archives. From time to time this season, we’ll take a look back at interesting people, places and events in Baltimore baseball history through the camera lenses that captured them and lend a historical perspective to what’s shown.