INDIANAPOLIS — It's midnight in Havana and Fidel Castro and Bob Smith are talking baseball.
Smith, president of the International Baseball Assn. with headquarters in Indianapolis, is in Cuba to meet with the country's top sports officials. Summoned to Castro's office, he expresses surprise that the Cuban leader even knew he was in the country.
"Mr. President, it's a little strange," he tells Castro, "In the United States, my president has trouble keeping up with his own Cabinet. Here, a guy like me slips into town and you find out about it."
Castro laughs, at ease in the presence of a baseball man. He asks Smith to give his regards to Peter Ueberroth, commissioner of major league baseball, and George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees.
Castro is known to have great affection for baseball. In the early 1950s, he was a pitcher-outfielder talented enough to rate a tryout with the Washington Senators.
Now, talking to Smith, he says he might allow Cuban ballplayers to again play in the major leagues. His wish is for an exhibition game between the Cuban national team and a big-league club. He mentions the possibility of Cuba joining the major leagues.
"He talked a lot about big league salaries," Smith said after returning to Greenville, Ill., where he is president of Greenville College. "He wanted to know the top salaries, the average and the minimum. 'You see,' he told me, 'I have more than just a normal interest in professional baseball."'
Skilled Cuban players like Orestes (Minnie) Minoso, Tony Oliva and Tony Perez have disappeared from American baseball. If others are to follow, Castro said, they would have to give part of their salaries back to Cuba.
"He said if a Cuban player makes a big, lucrative salary in the U.S., a portion of that salary would go to a project that would help the people of Cuba. For example, to build a hospital," Smith said.
Castro believes Cuba's national team is strong enough to compete with a major league team, Smith said. But he said he told Castro that under existing world conditions, such a game is unlikely to occur.
"I told him there would be very few owners in baseball who would consider the idea," Smith said.
"Someone like Peter O'Malley, who has been active in promoting international amateur baseball, might do it. Or a person like Ted Turner might see a game with Atlanta as having baseball and TV appeal. Or Steinbrenner, who was a guest of Cuba in the early 1980s, and who is more risk-taking than most.
"My general feeling is that it would be a long shot, and (Castro) agreed with me, but said he would like to see it happen."
Smith said Castro mentioned that Cuba has regularly defeated Mexican professional teams. Cuba's national team has won four straight Pan American Games titles, the last two World Championships and the last two Intercontinental Cups.
"We discussed if ever down the line relations between our countries improved, Cuba could have a major league baseball team," Smith said. "The major leagues are already beginning to think about world baseball. Some years from now there might be reason for Cuba to become a part of that."
Smith said he told Castro that it would be nice if the Cuban leader spent his 62nd birthday Aug. 13 at the Pan American Games in Indianapolis, perhaps watching his Cuban team play the United States squad.
"He said he would enjoy that if conditions were better," Smith said.
Cuba plans to send a team of at least 750 athletes to the Pan Am Games, but it seems that neither Castro nor any other head of state has been invited to attend the event. Organizers oFes contend that invitations to heads of state would present difficult security and housing problems.
"Castro told me jokingly that he would loan some players to the U.S. for the Pan Am Games so we could earn a spot in the 1988 Olympics," Smith said.
Cuba already has qualified for 1988 by virtue of its first-place finish in the 1986 World Championships in Holland. The United States team must finish either first or second in the Pan Am Games to qualify for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, in which baseball will be a demonstration sport.
Last October, the International Olympic Committee voted baseball into the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics as a medal sport. Since the vote, the Soviet Union has formed an amateur baseball association and has begun to play the game in Moscow and Leningrad.
"Castro said, 'We'll teach them how to get good, but not good enough to beat us,"' Smith related.
Smith said other subjects touched on during their 80-minute discussion in Castro's office included sports medicine and the use of drugs in sports.
"Castro mentioned that baseball in Cuba does not have drug problems, but they sometimes have problems with players gambling," Smith said.
This October, Cuba will host the Intercontinental Cup, a semi-annual invitational event sanctioned by the IBA, the governing body for international amateur baseball.