Opinion: A reminiscence on dinner with Castro

Now that Fidel Castro has passed, I thought it appropriate to tell a bizarre story about him and a trip to Cuba.

Some years ago, 1999 to be exact, the Baltimore Orioles with their owner, Peter Angelos, ventured to Havana to challenge the Cuban national baseball team in an exhibition game.

It was the first time such a game was waged since l959 and both sides were apprehensive; baseball fans were thrilled, and both sides revered the sport.

Major League Baseball sent me as American League president along with commissioner Bud Selig and Len Coleman, National League president. The governments, after much debate, approved the controversial event.

When I arrived in Havana and departed the plane, I was greeted by a uniformed Cuban military officer with an official letter from Castro. Our official party was invited to the Presidential Palace for dinner.

We were shocked and understandably uneasy.

Castro met us at the appointed hour and ushered us into the residence. He was decked out in freshly pressed fatigues and was quick to greet us, using our first names. He led us to dinner and opened the evening by asking his American guests many questions.

One needs to remember that Castro had broken off diplomatic relations with the United States and the U.S. had instituted an embargo on Cuba in an effort to weaken Castro’s regime. Relations between the two countries were tense. Some American politicians even attempted to block the game.

He asked me, as the former chancellor of the University of Kansas, how KU could win so many basketball games, like UCLA and Kentucky. “Do you play by the same rules?” he wanted to know. The rules of the NCAA were explained and he nodded. He even knew the names of players like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

“Some thought I was a good baseball pitcher, but I was much better at basketball,” he said.

The dinner group talked for more than four hours. Even jokes were exchanged. Fidel said he would see us at the game and he sat behind us. Then he passed out boxes of Cuban cigars to his guests.

We were ready for bed.

— Budig is past president of baseball’s American League and former president/chancellor of three major state universities.