For as long as he can remember, Bangor native Jordan Kobritz has had a love affair with baseball.
His ownership group realized a long-time dream of his by bringing Triple-A baseball to the state of Maine in 1984.
Even though dwindling attendance and the high cost of operating the facility resulted in Kobritz and his group selling the team three years later, he has continued to be heavily involved in baseball and now is part of a group looking to eventually bring a minor league team to Cuba.
There hasn’t been minor league baseball in Cuba since the Triple-A Havana Sugar Kings won the 1959 Little World Series at the expense of the Minneapolis Millers.
When former Pawtucket Red Sox owner, vice president and longtime friend Lou Schwechheimer approached Kobritz about joining a group exploring that possibility, Kobritz never hesitated.
“My first reaction was, ‘Heck, yes.’ It was exciting, it was visionary. It combined all of the elements of things I had done in the past, baseball and non-baseball,” Kobritz said. “Lou had this idea for over a decade. It was invigorating. Lou had just formed this limited partnership. He hadn’t done anything public with it.”
That partnership’s effort to bring minor league baseball to Cuba is called the Caribbean Baseball Initiative. The group also currently owns controlling interests in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League New Orleans Zephyrs and the Class A Florida State League’s Charlotte Stone Crabs.
“And we’re in the process of acquiring other minor league teams,” Schwechheimer said.
Reaching out to Kobritz for the Caribbean Baseball Initiative was a no-brainer, he said.
“He is one of the smartest people I have ever met,” said Schwechheimer. “He is also one of the most passionate, decent and committed guys I’ve ever seen.”
After agreeing to join Schwechheimer’s group, Kobritz suggested they meet with his ex-law partner, former U.S. Sen. Bill Cohen, also a Bangor native, and Cohen’s consultant group in Washington.
The Cohen Group supplies corporate leadership with advice and assistance in business development, market entry, regulatory affairs and deal sourcing from strategy conception to successful closing.
“Lou and I flew to Washington and talked to them about the project and our vision. They joined us,” said Kobritz. “Lou figured Cuba would open up at some point and he just wanted to be prepared when that time came.”
“They gave us a much greater awareness of the ebb and flow of sports policies in different countries,” said Schwechheimer. “It is so critical to build and establish trust and relationships.”
A breakthrough occurred 15 months ago when President Barack Obama announced the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba and the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana.
Building a foundation
On Sunday, Schwechheimer, Kobritz and other members of the Caribbean Baseball Initiative will make their sixth trip to Cuba in 22 months and fourth in the last five months.
President Obama and his family will also be in Cuba and there will be an exhibition baseball game in Havana between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team.
It will be the first time a U.S. president has visited Cuba in over 90 years and the exhibition game in Cuba involving a major league team will be the first since 1999.
Jeff Idelson, the president of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, will also attend, as the Cubans are looking to establish their own Hall of Fame.
Kobritz said the Cuban people have been more welcoming with every visit.
“We used to get handshakes. Now we get hugs. They can’t wait to see you and talk baseball,” he said.
“We will continue to engage with the Cuban people. We’re trying to lay a foundation for not only the short term, but also for the long term,” he added.
Schwechheimer, who delivered the keynote address at the University of Havana, said the CBI has built great relationships.
“People have accepted me as well as Jordan and the entire CBI team,” he said.
When they go to Cuba, they bring baseball equipment to give to the Cuban players. They have also supplied equipment to umpires. And they brought a stadium architect to discuss facilities.
“We don’t ask for anything in return, just to share our love of the game with them,” said Schwechheimer.
He is also quick to point out that it is extremely beneficial for the CBI as well.
“Some of the top 15-20 players in the world are from this island of 11 million people,” said Schwechheimer. “So they’re doing something right in their youth programs and the way they train their players. We have an awful lot to learn from them.”
Progress made, but obstacles remain
Schwechheimer and Kobritz are looking forward to the day minor league baseball returns to Cuba but there is no timetable. They are both realists.
“We’re making progress. Obviously the end game is a ways off. Rome wasn’t built in a day,” said Kobritz.
Like any major project, there are obstacles.
“The Cuban people are very optimistic but not everyone in our country is in favor of renewing relations with Cuba,” said Kobritz. “The economy in Cuba has a long ways to go.
“There are only 11 million people in Cuba and the average income is 24 dollars a month, so a lot of Cubans have second jobs,” he added. “The governments will have to work together and the economy has to develop for any businesses to be successful down there.”
The Cubans have their own pro league and there are facilities in every province, but Kobritz said “most of those facilities haven’t had any TLC [tender loving care] since the 1950s. All but two were built before [Fidel] Castro came into power [in 1959].”
The trade embargo placed on Cuba by the U.S. in 1960 is another major sticking point, but if that is lifted, that will be a positive development for the CBI.
Another issue is that the Cuban government isn’t compensated financially when their players defect to play in the United States, but when players from other countries, such as Japan and South Korea, leave, then their teams are compensated.
However, Major League Baseball is currently involved in negotiations to generate a legal way for Cuban baseball players to play in the U.S. without having to abandon their country.
Schwechheimer and Kobritz are firm believers in the value of sports.
“They can bring countries and people closer together,” said Kobritz, who will be hosting a baseball symposium on April 28 at SUNY-Cortland, where he is the sports management department chairman and a professor.
Cuban and American baseball officials will be on hand after touring the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, the previous day.
Kobritz said there are similarities between bringing Triple-A baseball to Maine and hopefully returning minor league baseball to Cuba.
“It’s similar in that they are both creative, visionary projects. We started from scratch. We started slowly with the Guides, but this is moving along much more slowly,” said Kobritz. “It’s different in that you’re dealing with different countries and governments instead of municipalities.”
But the love of the game is the common denominator.