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Hard ball

The New York Times published the following editorial on April 14 about U.S.-Cuban relations and baseball.

When President Barack Obama began thawing long-frozen relations with Cuba — a drive that included attending a baseball game in Havana alongside President Raúl Castro — Major League Baseball began negotiating with the Cuban Baseball Federation to start legally bringing Cuban stars to play in the United States. The deal, heralded as a way to combat the illegal cross-border smuggling of ballplayers, was finally clinched in December, and the Cuban federation sent over its first list of 34 candidates on April 3.

They won’t be coming.

At least not legally, after the Trump administration abruptly ended the deal, announcing that the Cuban federation was not independent of the Cuban government, as the Obama administration had ruled, and so paying it the fees mandated in the agreement would be a violation of American trade rules.

Officials in the Trump administration also linked the reversal to Cuba’s support for the Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro, whom Washington is trying to oust. “America’s national pastime should not enable the Cuban regime’s support for Maduro in Venezuela,” tweeted John Bolton, the national security adviser, on the day before the baseball deal was canceled.

The administration’s arguments are not without merit. No organization as prominent as the Cuban Baseball Federation can be fully independent of the Havana government. And Cuba has remained a firm ally of Mr. Maduro, receiving Venezuelan oil in exchange for doctors and other specialists and intelligence, which has helped him remain in power despite demands from Washington and more than 50 other governments that he end his terrible rule.

But that is not entirely what this is about. Mr. Obama’s effort to end more than five decades of hostility toward Cuba was approved by a large majority of Americans as an opening that was long overdue. Allowing some players from baseball-mad Cuba to play legally in the major leagues was a win-win proposition: Players who might have risked dangerous flight could legally reach for stardom and wealth; Cuban baseball would make some money; and their presence would be tangible evidence of a crack in the ice. Accepting the myth of an independent Cuban Baseball Federation was deemed a necessary wink.

The thaw was bitterly opposed from the outset by anti-Castro Republicans, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American, and President Trump soon set about reversing some of what Mr. Obama had done. The baseball deal was in the opponents’ cross hairs even before the drive to oust Mr. Maduro began. Mr. Rubio assailed it repeatedly, and in December, before Elliott Abrams became Mr. Trump’s special representative for Venezuela, he wrote a scathing attack in National Review.

Yet canceling the deal was a bad move done for the wrong reasons. Cuba’s decision to let its athletes earn their living outside Cuba was a step in the right direction, even if some dollars might have spilled into government coffers. And while Cuba should be dissuaded from propping up the Maduro regime, that should not be a pretext for indulging the right-wing obsession with maintaining a permanent freeze on relations with Cuba.

In the end, what Mr. Rubio and the administration largely achieved was to deny Cuban baseball players their right to play at the highest level without having to sneak circuitously and dangerously into the United States and to forgo the right to ever return to their homeland.

Taking it downtown

I was as dug in at home plate as I could be, especially on asphalt, but remained relaxed — “in the zone” before there was such a thing, waiting on a moment I’d been visualizing in my adolescent brain for the last 15 minutes. As the pitcher released the ball, I picked up the rotation almost instantly and held firm. It was headed high and inside, toward my left shoulder, maybe even my ear, but with the same certainty that the sun would rise tomorrow, I knew the pitch would break sharply, over the plate, so I twitched slightly and waited, totally confident in my anticipation.

My swing was almost anticlimactic and as envisioned, I crushed it. The ball rocketed into the hazy sunshine of a long lost Jersey summer, almost out of sight, so beyond the end of our block that the furthest outfielder hadn’t even budged when the ball clattered into the open door of a speeding mail truck and was lost forever. The longest home run in history, perhaps going miles, and considering it was our only ball, a walk-off before there were walk-offs.

That indelible memory vividly returns as I stand in approximately the same spot almost six decades later, staring down the same street, marveling at how far from here I’ve traveled, how strange it feels to be back and wondering about the other boys from that late afternoon stickball game and how their lives have gone. The block seems much shorter than I remember, my long-ago achievement diminished somewhat, reminding me again that — in the age of Google — some things are best dimly recollected rather than clearly verified.

Although I never kept in touch with my elementary school friends, having moved to a different section of town before beginning high school, I’m on a walking tour of my childhood with a friend who grew up a couple of short blocks away. We met ironically as adults, selling advertising for our (former) hometown newspaper. I was post-military, pre-college while he remained an ad man until the emerging world of tech beckoned a couple of years later. And now we’re retired, finding ourselves at the intersection of our old neighborhoods, reliving separate memories, just blocks from the parochial school we both attended for eight years without ever crossing paths, wondering if we’d ever bumped shoulders in the hall.

We’ve been good friends for going on 50 years and had joked about this nostalgia tour for a while, never quite taking it seriously enough to make it happen until now. That it’s Good Friday only makes it stranger, given our Roman Catholic upbringing coupled with the guilt and fear instilled and maintained by mid-century nuns, whose particular brand of terror was still veiled in secrecy. By the time we realized the problem was them, not us, we were long gone, both from them and the icy grip of religion.

On this day, however, looking into the distant past was the mission, and in that past, our Catholicism was never far from center stage, so at 3 p.m. we find ourselves in the vestibule of Saint Andrews Church, just as the priest is offering a welcome to the 75 or so parishioners in attendance. I’m scanning the stained glass windows as he begins reciting the stations of the cross — ”Jesus is condemned to death” — when the memories come flooding back — most of my Fridays were anything but good.

During the 40 days of lent, which felt more like 40 years, the “Stations” were conducted weekly on Friday afternoons, after school, engendering a resentment that, considering how I feel hearing the first one recited, has not quite dissipated. Just as my fight-or-flight response begins to engage, the priest hefts a life-sized cross and begins dragging it up the center aisle, out the front door down the street, followed by the worshipers who evidently are not here on a nostalgia tour.

Circling the now-empty church, my attention returns to the colorful windows, each of which brings back the fragment of a different memory, a shocking realization of just how much time we were expected to spend hanging out in the Lord’s house in those days. Strolling the perimeter, we pass random statuary, the traditional purple shrouds of Holy Week obscuring their identity. Like so many other eerie aspects of this monolithic religion, I remember that it was done, but it remains a mystery why.

As we step out onto the cloudy streets, the cross-bearing priest and his congregation are fading in the distance, their procession exacerbating the already sketchy traffic pattern as people complete their last- minute, Easter weekend errands. The wind picks up, the salt air reminding us of our hometown’s proximity to New York Bay, the Verrazano Bridge and the cold, grey Atlantic Ocean beyond.

Later, over Sichuan dumplings and fiery sauces in a Jersey City fusion restaurant, we reminisce with college friends about the ways our lives have changed, as well as all the ways we’ve stubbornly remained the same. We discuss in retrospect the small triumphs and bitter defeats we’ve experienced, but generally keep it light, laughing loudly and frequently, amazed at how it doesn’t really seem all that long ago.

But we’re also acutely aware the calendar doesn’t lie, without ever acknowledging it, as we scarf the last of the food and hit our individual roads for home. Only separated by some inconvenient miles, we’ll meet up again soon ... unlike the old neighborhood, which I now contentedly leave to its current residents, writing different scripts, creating new memories and playing in stickball games of their own.

Walt Amses lives in North Calais.

Support gun buy waiting period

Day 137. As I write this, it’s been 137 days since my 23-year-old son, Andrew Black, walked into a gun store, bought a handgun, drove home and within hours, shot himself. On Day 3, we wrote an obituary, suggesting a way to honor Andrew would be to call your local representative asking for a brief waiting period for gun purchases. It is heartening to see that such a bill is moving forward at the State House.

I’ve woken up every morning for 137 days and willed myself to get out of bed. I’ve gone to work. I’ve driven repeatedly to the State House to meet with countless legislators and elected officials. I’ve told my son’s story to anyone willing to listen. I’ve gone to my mailbox each day only to find another card or letter from another family, from both near and far, sending their condolences and telling me about their son or brother or father, how Andrew’s story is just like their loved one’s story.

I’ve immersed myself in research and statistics. I used to think: “Vermont is so safe, we don’t have a gun problem.” In 2016, there were over 1,000 serious suicide attempts. The vast majority did not involve a gun and they failed; research shows that 90% of them will never attempt suicide again. Of the 118 suicide attempts that “succeeded,” more than half used a gun. Unsurprisingly, when a gun is used, it is almost always fatal. There is no second chance.

I now understand the devastating link between firearm access and the impulsivity of suicide. Andrew had a crisis. The same crisis most of us experience in our lives. Tragically, he impulsively chose the most lethal method to try to make his temporary crisis go away. He didn’t get a second chance.

Andrew Black is not the reason to pass a gun purchase waiting period bill. Andrew is just one story. He’s just the one story you may have heard; most others, you never will. There are no statistics recorded on gun deaths and date of purchase. Much like Andrew’s investigation, they will be quietly noted, signed off by a state’s attorney and never seen again. The facts regarding Vermont’s alarming rate of suicide are the reason this important legislation should be passed.

Vermonters sent a strong message in November that they want common sense gun legislation. Research is very clear that waiting periods will save lives. A waiting period may have saved Andrew’s life. It will not save everyone, but it may save another mother’s son.

I am grateful that a firearm purchase waiting period bill was taken up and a reasonable compromise passed the Senate. I now urge the House leadership to work hard to pass this bill and I urge the governor to support it.

How many Andrew Blacks should we sacrifice waiting for another session? How many other mothers are going to have to start counting their days? It’s Day 137. Tonight, I will lay down and say the same words I’ve said the last 136 nights. “I made it through another day.”

Alyssa Black lives in Essex.