Recently I spoke in Tampa, FL, to a group of Cuban Americans whose goal is to improve relations between the United States and Cuba. They asked me to talk about the profound ecological connection between our two countries, and why our two governments should cooperate on environmental matters. I began by telling them a story, but not about the environment.
Last winter I had dinner with Jim Bunning, a family friend who was both a United States Senator and a Hall of Fame Major League pitcher. As we ate, Senator Bunning told me about an old Cuban friend of his named Conrado “Connie” Marrero. Marrero was born in 1911, when William Howard Taft was President of the United States and José Miguel Gómez (a.k.a. The Shark) was Cuba’s president.
Marrero grew up to become a great pitcher in the Cuban amateur league, when amateur baseball was the name of the game there. He then played professionally in Cuba until 1950, when, at age 38, he was recruited to play in the big leagues for the Washington Senators.
In 1956, Bunning told me, it was Marrero, by then the Detroit Tigers’ pitching coach, who taught him how to throw a slider. Bunning perfected the pitch playing winter league ball in Cuba with Marrero in 1957.
That year, Bunning won 20 games for Detroit (after winning eight in the previous two seasons) and was on his way to the Hall of Fame. “Connie changed my game,” he said.
A few weeks ago, I met Connie Marrero at his home in Havana. He was almost 102, and though frail, blind, hard of hearing and no longer throwing a slider, Connie was excited to hear news of his old friend. He reminisced about playing with Bunning and against Joe Dimaggio, Ted Williams and other legends. When I told him that Bunning gave him credit for changing his game, he just smiled.
I told that story in Tampa as a reminder that U.S.—Cuba relations were once as close as the sliver of saltwater that separates the two nations, and should be so again. This is important for both countries, which, despite five decades of political stalemate, share much more than a love of baseball.
In fact, the two countries are tightly linked environmentally — in ways that no political disagreements can affect. Cuban coastal waters are the spawning grounds for snapper, grouper and other fish that support commercial and recreational fisheries in Florida. The Havana area is a wintering ground for most of the familiar songbirds that nest along the eastern seaboard of the United States. Finally, Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico hold vast oil reserves, and if a major oil spill were ever to occur, currents in the Florida Straits would almost certainly carry oil to American waters and shorelines.
Thus it is in the interest of both countries, as I reminded my audience, to work together to protect and sustain the common natural connection that nature has given us.
As I was leaving the event in Tampa, a 91-year old Cuban man named Alberto said that my story of Marrero made him feel like a teenager again. Alberto has been working for more than 50 years to bring about a rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba. It’s time for us to follow his lead and change our game with Cuba. We will all come out winners.