by Adrián Romero (Café Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Larkin, two former stars of Major League Baseball, surprisingly landed Saturday in Havana and toured the city to the joy of Cuban fans.
The visitors toured areas of historic Old Havana and were honored in the city’s Central Park, where they signed autographs and caused a rage among fans that the all-stars had never imagined.
The makeshift reception in Central Park was recorded by photographer Raul Pupo for Cubadebate.cu.
Griffey Jr, 44, and Larkin, 50, arrived Saturday to explore baseball on the island. They will visit training areas, donate sports equipment and expect to hold meetings with officials from the Cuban Baseball Federation, said a member of their group.
The trip was organized by Educational Travel Alliance, an organization that promotes people to people contacts, authorized by the administration of Barack Obama since 2011. The group also includes a former star women’s softball player from the United States.
Approaching the Major Leagues
On Monday the former stars are scheduled to attend a reception at the residence of the head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, John Caulfield, an enthusiastic promoter of baseball and who has previously hosted meetings with Cuban and American players visiting the island.
Larkin and Griffey Jr. will remain in Cuba until next Thursday.
The visit comes at a time when expectations are growing on the inclusion of Cuban players in professional leagues. Antonio Castro, son of Fidel Castro and Vice President of the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), has pronounced in favor of establishing relations with the big leagues to normalize the integration of players from the island to the best baseball in the world.
An interview with Antonio Castro will be posted on February 17 in ESPN magazine, in an issue devoted to Cuban baseball and with Yasiel Puig on the cover. Puig, who escaped from the island in 2012 is now a star of the Los Angeles Dodgers, with a US $ 42 million contract.
In a conversation with reporter Paula Lavigne, held last September in Havana, Castro said he favors allowing Cuban players who now play in the big leagues to also do so with the national team in the near future.
A meeting of Larkin and Griffey Jr. with Antonio Castro is considered a possibility during their stay in the Cuban capital.
Coverage in the Cuban Media
So far the official Cuban press has not reported the visit, except the Cubadebate website [which cannot be seen by the vast majority of the population] that curiously ran this Sunday a “sports commentary” by a familiar official press signature, Enrique Ubieta, stating that “the return of Cuba to professional scenes is not a victory, but instead a momentary defeat.”
Griffey Jr. played 22 seasons in the majors. His numbers recorded a career batting average of .284, with 2,781 hits, 630 homers and 1,836 RBIs. He was an exceptional outfielder and if that stats aren’t even more impressive it was because of injuries. He retired in 2010, and nobody doubts he will be voted into the Hall of Fame.
Larkin is already a member of the Hall of Fame since 2012, after playing 18 seasons in the majors with the Cincinnati Reds (1986-2004). He was on the Big Red Machine that won the 1990 World Series. He coincided with Griffey Jr. on the Reds in the seasons from 2000 to 2004, and the two maintain a solid friendship.
The spectacular Reds shortstop retired with a .295 batting average, 2,340 hits, 198 homers and 960 RBIs.
Last year, Larkin was the manager of Brazil’s team in the Third World Baseball Classic in Taiwan and Japan. On that occasion Larkin spoke with the director of the Cuban team, Victor Mesa, and expressed his willingness to visit the island.