Marlins uniforms to honor revered Cuban team

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The Miami Marlins will use their “City Connect” uniforms to honor the Cuban Sugar Kings, a fleeting yet monumental former minor league organization with a special connection to the Cuban-American populace of South Florida.

The new uniforms were unveiled by the team on Monday morning and will be worn by their players for the first time on Friday, the day after Cuban Independence Day. The team will wear the uniforms throughout that weekend home series against the New York Mets, which features the team’s Cuban Heritage Night, and in five other weekend series the rest of this season.

The Sugar Kings were a Triple-A team in the International League that was owned by Bobby Maduro and played out of Havana, Cuba, from 1954 to 1960. Maduro — revered so much in Miami that a baseball stadium was named after him — aspired to turn the Sugar Kings into a major league team based out of Cuba, an aspiration expressed through the team’s popular motto of “Un Paso Mas Y Llegamos” (“One More Step And We Get There.”) The team got close, winning the Junior World Series in 1959, but Fidel Castro’s rise to power and Cuba’s deteriorated relations with the United States forced the team to suddenly relocate to New Jersey and ultimately dissolve.

The older generation of Cubans in Miami — many of whom live in Little Havana, site of the Marlins’ ballpark — still look back on that team with great reverence. Cookie Rojas, a Cuban-American who played for the Sugar Kings and went on to carve out a 16-year major league career, called the Marlins’ uniforms “a very good, well-deserved representation of the ballclub in trying to give the Sugar Kings what they deserve.”

“I believe it’s one of the greatest things for the fans right now to remember,” said Rojas, who believes Maduro should be honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame. “You can very much dream on what could’ve happened.”

The Marlins are one of seven teams — along with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants — to partner with Nike and Major League Baseball on the “City Connect Series” as a way to tap into the culture of their respective communities.

Designing the uniforms wound up being a two-year process. The Marlins quickly realized they should honor the Sugar Kings but wanted something more bold and more vibrant than the team’s original uniforms. They sought jerseys that would pop on the field but could also be worn at events, Marlins vice president of experience and innovation Michael Shaw said, and ultimately decided on an inverse look with the red (Legacy Red) as the primary color.

The “Miami” script on the front is designed in a font similar to the one used by the Sugar Kings, but the white pinstripes on the jersey are noticeably wider. The cap’s crest and the jersey’s right sleeve feature the original Sugar Kings logo infused with two Ms to represent the Miami Marlins.

The Sugar Kings, affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds, were one of the sport’s first multinational teams, an encapsulation of Miami’s melting pot identity.

“When you think about the diversity and the sheer will and determination of a team that is seeking to break barriers and has bigger dreams to play Major League Baseball — we saw a lot of connectivity between our young guys and our team, that they seek to achieve and dream bigger, and achieve more and do more, against the odds sometimes,” Shaw said.

The Sugar Kings’ apex came in 1959, when they played their best season amid nationwide turmoil. Castro came into power to begin that year but initially showed support for the Sugar Kings, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before the team’s opening game. For Games 3, 4 and 5 of the Junior World Series, Castro sat directly behind home plate. For Game 6, he sat in the team’s dugout. The series reached Game 7, and 35,000 people packed what is now called Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana. The Sugar Kings won on a walk-off single, clinching the title and sending a mob of people onto the field.

But relations between the U.S. and Cuba quickly soured; Communism and Nationalistic ideals swept the island. By the middle of 1960, the Sugar Kings had relocated to Jersey City, the Cuban government had confiscated Maduro’s stadium and players were left with the difficult choice of abandoning their families to pursue their dreams of playing in the major leagues.

As they navigated through that fateful 1959 season, Rojas said, players held on to the faint hope that their success might help slow momentum and keep Maduro’s dream of a major league franchise in Cuba alive. Cuba instead changed in every way imaginable, leaving Rojas with constant thoughts about what could have been.

He no longer has his old Sugar Kings uniform.

“I wish I still had it, to be honest with you,” Rojas said. “I wish I had it. Because it would be something to really look at and remind you of all the things could’ve happened.”

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