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Father And Son Root For Baseball And Better Cuban-U.S. Relations


There's a historic ball game tonight in Havana. Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays play Cuba's national team. President Obama will be there. So will 87-year-old Felipe Nunez.

FELIPE NUNEZ: Baseball? Tremendously important. You know, I was raised following the Yankees since I was 9 years old, you know?

GREENE: Nunez is a Cuban-American who lives in Florida. He and his son, Mario, were eating at a cafe near Old Havana when we spoke with them. Mario thinks baseball can help bring these countries together.

MARIO NUNEZ: There's just so much that can be gained from baseball. You know, the game itself lends itself to nine innings - two-and-a-half, three hours' worth of pace where you sit, you talk, you have conversation. This is the perfect conduit to get things moving forward between the two countries.

GREENE: And he was proud to be experiencing this with his dad.

M. NUNEZ: Well, I've got to be honest, it's very special. The last time he was here on the island was in 1947 as a teenager. You know, to have him back here with me is a pretty special occasion, certainly.

GREENE: Well, nothing like a father-son baseball game. And then you're going to be at the Rays game against the Cuban national team. I mean, what are you expecting to happen there?

M. NUNEZ: Well, first of all, we're going to witness our president throwing out the first pitch, which - I've never seen that live. Very cool. And you have to understand something. Since he's been here - and he landed 30 minutes after we did - this island has been turned on because everybody is smiling, everybody is beaming. You can sense that the people are placing a lot of hope in his visit, that things will now begin the long journey forward to turn things around here.

GREENE: Well, as much as the emotions seem high, I mean, it's - you know better than anyone, I'm sure. I mean, it's a very complicated moment. There's some in the United States who feel like the Castros have been too brutal with their human rights record to really normalize relations at this point. There are dissidents on the island who are asking President Obama to support them more. I mean - but you say that baseball has a way of cutting through all that. I mean, talk to me about that. Why is baseball so powerful?

M. NUNEZ: Well, I think that because the history between the two nations goes back so far - pre-Castro, certainly. The United States and their major league baseball enterprise is - you know, was integrated first and foremost by players who came from this island. And then you've got baseball at the heart of everything that's Americana and good with our story there. And, you know, I understand. I really - I'm not naive, and I'm not insensitive to what's going on in Miami with the faction.

I - look, my best friend was born in Cuba, came to the United States in 1961, and we've been best friends for over 50 years. He can't come back here because there are people that just will not step foot on this island as long as the Castro brothers are still alive.

GREENE: Did your best friend try to talk you out of coming on this trip?

M. NUNEZ: He didn't really. But I've got to be honest with you, we haven't spoken, you know? I think it's - I don't think he sees it as a betrayal, but he just -we're just not talking about it right now. It's kind of a sore subject.

GREENE: But is it hard for something like this to complicate such a long-standing friendship?

M. NUNEZ: I love him like a brother. I mean, he is my brother, you know? We were best man at each other's wedding. I mean, we go back too far, you know? Four and 5 years old. And this will not tear us asunder. This will not break us up. But right now I respect, you know, his opinion, and so we kind of just keep our distance until we get through this.

I'm sure he's going to want to hear about it, and I'm going to probably tell him about it. But right now, it's not for me to rub it in his face and tell him, you know, anything, really. He's got to kind of suffer quietly with this. And my reality is completely different, David, you know, because I'm uplifted being here. I'm with my dad. This is a joyous occasion for me. So we couldn't be - our emotional, you know, range couldn't be any more apart right now.

GREENE: Well, Mario Nunez, I really appreciated talking to you.

M. NUNEZ: Thank you so much, David.

GREENE: Mario Nunez in Havana to watch baseball with his father. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.