Vero Beach, Florida - Tommy Lasorda has seen plenty of change in Cuba. He was playing baseball on the island when Fulgencio Batista overthrew Carlos Prio in 1952 and again when Fidel Castro overthrew the Battista government in 1959.
"When Castro took over the city on the first of January, me, Art Fowler and Bob Allison came out of a New Year's party with our wives, and it was 3:30 in the morning and I look up and three planes were flying over head," said Lasorda. "I said 'Geez who in the world is flying at this time at night?' It was actually Batista and all his cabinet members. They were getting out of the country. When Castro came into Havana on New Year's Day, I can remember horns blowing, I came back from Church and they were celebrating."
Early in his reign, Castro summoned the charismatic and popular Lasorda for a meeting.
"He sent a couple of guys after me," said Lasorda. "In fact, Howie Haak, the scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was with me at the time. So I said, 'Come on Howie, you come with me.' When we went into the Havana Hilton into his suite, Howie couldn't believe it. Castro was waiting to talk to me. We talked baseball. And Howie enjoyed that, as I did too. Everybody thought that he was the savior of the country."
Lasorda's image of Castro and Cuba would soon change. Bobby Maduro, a baseball scout and manager of one of the teams in the Cuban League, was a close friends with Lasorda. After the new government adopted Communism and seized all of Maduro's assets, Lasorda grew disenchanted with the island.
"I saw a good country really torn apart," said Lasorda.
One part of Cuba that Lasorda will always cherish is its baseball. He pitched in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and spent his winters hurling for Mariano and Almendares in the legendary Cuban League, where Cuban stars, major leaguers and Negro League legends spent the winter playing baseball.
"The American players were treated outstanding," said Lasorda. "The fans were just tremendous, diehard, energetic fans. They sang at games, it was fun, really exciting. If you came down there and you didn't play good, they got rid of you. I could remember Eddie Pellagrini, major leaguer, played with the Red Sox, played with the Phillies, he struck out one game three times and he was struggling. They started whistling, so he thought they were cheering for him when I told him, 'Hey they are booing you when they whistle like that." If you didn't play good you were out of there real fast."
Nearly 45 years later, Lasorda found himself back on a baseball diamond with some of the greatest Cuban ballplayers in the world. That's when Lasorda managed the U.S. Olympic baseball team to a stunning defeat of Cuba for the gold medal at the 2004 summer games.
"We couldn't wait to play Cuba in the gold medal game," said Lasorda. "Everyone said to me, they couldn't be beaten. I said. "Why are they undefeated? They must have lost a game somewhere." Everyone said, 'Yes, but nobody has beaten them for the gold medal. You can't beat the Cubans.' I said 'Well, they'll lose again because that gold medal for baseball belongs in the United States.' "
Lasorda's roster consisted of a blend of top amateurs, minor leaguers and a few major league veterans. Some of the familiar names on the roster were Pat Borders, Doug Mientkiewicz, Adam Everett and Ben Sheets, who shutout Cuba, 4-0, in the gold medal game.
"This was bigger than the World Series," said Lasorda. ""When we won the world championship the Dodger fans were happy but the Cincinnati Reds fans or the Padres fans weren't. You win the gold medal, well then all of America is happy. And that's exactly what we did. We brought that gold medal to the United States, where it belonged in baseball. You know they said coaches don't get medals in the Olympics and that's true, but I said hey, I got my medal when I saw them put the medal around my players. I got my medal when I saw them raise that American flag. And I got my medal when they played that National Anthem. I cried because I did something for my country."
Lasorda would like to see one more change in Cuba.
"Havana was great, it was a very beautiful city," said Lasorda. "I enjoyed playing down there. It was a great, great country, the people were great fans. And I hope before the big Dodger in the sky calls me, that I would see a free Cuba."