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Posted by on Mar 19, 2014 in Baseball, Blog

Baseball: Cuba’s Game

Baseball: Cuba’s Game

As a follow up on the article about Cuban professional baseball, author Anthony Wayne contributes this story about how he got a chance to play baseball with a group of Cuban men during a recent vacation in Havana.

An American Playing Baseball in Cuba (Not the Other Way Around)

Vintage car in Cuba

The team bus that took us to the baseball game. Not all cars in Cuba are vintage; only about 7% are. Most vintage cars are used to haul tourists.

Cubans also love soccer too, but baseball is clearly Cuba’s game.  The next day, after my trip to see Industriales de Habana play, I was invited to play real baseball at a park in Havana with a group of Cubans that I had met in Old Havana and at the baseball game the night before.  I was picked up at 1 pm at my casa in a red ’52 Chevy.  We had four players on our team now – my host, the guy driving the Chevy, me, and the Canadian guy who was living in the casa next to me.

The Amateur Draft

Now, we needed to find a competitive nine man roster to field our team.  Can you imagine doing that in New York City on a Wednesday afternoon?  We’d still be looking!

We asked the young guy who peddled a tourist bicycle down Obispo Street—one of the main shopping streets in Old Havana.  He said yes and jumped in the front seat.  Then, we drove to the Central Park Hotel and added a bellman who was just getting off of his shift, so we were up to six and he also jumped in the front seat. I was wondering why there were four guys in the front seat while the Canadian guy and I sat alone in the back.

bicycle tourist drive and baseball player

TEAMMATES: I played baseball with this guy and then the next day he rode my wife and I on his tourist bicycle, and our luggage, to the hotel where we were being picked up.

Then, a taxi driver joined our team for seven.  “Taxi drivers are always good baseball players,” said the captain guy who I gave my Phillies cap to as partial barter for asking me to be on their team.

One guy was hanging out in the park at the Hot Corner (the “Hot Corner” is a place in Central Park Havana where baseball fans go to vehemently debate baseball) and one of the players knew him and said he was really good so he ran after him to draft him for our team.  Eight.  Another guy showed up at the field to meet us and I have no idea where he came from.  Before you knew it, we had nine players—seven Cubans, one American, and one Canadian.  A team worthy of the World Baseball Classic.  Not.

The Cubans have an odd way of bonding.  Each time we added a player, somebody said “he’s a really good baseball player, but he’s gay.”  And, then they would all laugh.  I wasn’t in the position to lecture them on how politically incorrect that statement was, and my Spanish wasn’t good enough anyway, so I just went along with it.

The American and the Canadian guy were expected to buy the three cases of cerveza (beer) that we would need for after the games which we gladly did.  It’s not easy to find three cases of beer in Havana and we had to stop at several places before we found one with that quantity of cerveza.  Buying the beer was part of our admissions as the new rookies and the rich guys on the team.  Of course, we didn’t mind, I’ll buy the cerveza any time to play baseball with such quality guys.

At the Ballpark

baseball field in Havana

BATTER UP: Our team is up to bat and I’m taking the picture. The kids sitting behind home plate would run after the balls that got past the backstop in hopes of getting a chance to play as an injury substitute. They pinch ran for the Canadian guy and me in game four when the coach saw we were struggling in the heat.

There were four large diamonds and one youth diamond at the park where we were playing.  The fields themselves were in better condition than I expected so there would be no excuses for muffing grounders.  The backstops, however, were basically missing.  The shell of the backstops were there, but no fencing to do the normal job that a backstop does.  The rubber was a piece of wood that was sticking about four inches out of the pitcher’s mound.  No bathrooms in the park, although there was a deserted building on the third base side of our field that was used for player relief.  I was warned not to go there if there were “policia” around as you would get arrested for using the rundown building as a men’s room.

There was no water anywhere at the park and none of the players brought any either.  Occasionally, a guy would show up on a bicycle with a basket full of old plastic bottles that were filled with tap water and the game would stop while the players ran over to him to buy the water.  They would drink the water and then give the plastic bottles back.  The man would gather the bottles in his basket and go back home and fill them up and do it all over again.  I wasn’t comfortable drinking the water this way so I just sucked on the ice that was in the beer cooler to stay hydrated in the heat.

The captain of the team spoke very good English and he asked me in my native language where I wanted to play and I told him that I was a middle infielder so I could play shortstop.  “Shortstop” is the only baseball position in Spanish and English that uses the same word so everybody knew what I was answering.  The players all started to laugh, and pointed at the long-haired guy on the team, because he was the regular shortstop.

I took one look at him and saw he was tall and lean and very athletic looking—the perfect baseball build.  Then, the captain said to me in English that the long-haired guy “was a good shortstop, but he’s gay” and all the players laughed again.  This seemed to be the only English phrase that all of the players’ knew.  I held my laughter as a mild form of protest this time.

I deferred and said  “la segunda baseman entonces,” or “second baseman then.”

Best decision I made all day.  The captain said I’d bat sixth in the lineup which I was happy with, because I wanted to see a few pitches first and frankly I was just happy that he didn’t put me in the nine hole.

baseball field Havana

If we were playing Single-A ball, the guys next to us must have been Double-A, because their catcher’s actually had gear.  Their backstops, however, as you can see, were no higher level.

Canadian Thrift Shop Equipment

None of the players on the team owned their own gloves, but the Canadian guy had purchased nine gloves at a thrift shop in Vancouver prior to coming to Cuba so he brought all of the gloves and then donated them to the team members after the game.  We had two metal bats and two extremely old wood bats that were so heavy that they reminded me of the bats that hitters use in the on deck circle prior to an at bat.

The first baseman wore a catcher’s mitt.  The pitcher used a first baseman’s mitt.  I played second base and wore a tiny glove that was about the size that an 8-year-old would use.  One outfielder had to wear a lefty first baseman’s mitt, but fortunately for our team, he was a naturally lefty.  The team we played had three gloves and one bat so most of us had to trade gloves when we came in to bat.  I didn’t have to, because nobody wanted that tiny glove.

One player, a big lefty with power, was the only guy who seemed to be at least 40-years-old other than the Canadian guy and me; he wore a full uniform from his playing days that was complete with metal cleats.  Three of the players didn’t even own sneakers and played in bare feet.

I had a MLB cap on and all of the players were really admiring it.  One asked me if he could have it and I said to see me after the game and I would give it to him.  I felt badly, because during the course of the game several of the players asked me if they could have the cap and I had to say that I already promised it to somebody else.  Anything American these people love, especially baseball stuff.

anti-American messages in Cuba

LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP: While the Cuban people love Americans, you do find government anti-American messages around Havana.

Official Cuban Baseball Rules

The rules took a bit of getting used to.  Since nobody wore batting helmets, the pitchers were not allowed to throw at full speed, but they were able to throw curves, change ups, and sliders.  And, the first pitcher we played against threw all three pitches well.

Behind home plate was a rubber car mat and behind it was a piece of scrap metal.  Two strikes and you were out and a foul counted as a strike.  It was obvious when it was a called strike as you could clearly hear that the ball hit the metal.  I thought it was a bit unfair that there were no walks so the pitchers could throw you all kinds of garbage and the hitter would get impatient and go down swinging.

And go down swinging was exactly what I did in two of my first four at bats.  I was so paranoid about the metal strike zone that I was swinging at anything.  By the second game, however, I figured it out and was patient and began hitting the ball.  Because I have always hit to all fields, I had an advantage as most of the guys were really macho and tried to pull the ball and hit it out of the short 300 foot porch in left field that went into the street.  (By the way, Cuba is on the metric system with all things but baseball; it still measures the outfield fence in feet.)  The natural shift meant that right field was wide open for a right-handed hitter and I was able to bang several liners to the right side that were singles that turned into doubles; would have been triples for me back in the day, but not today in the Cuban heat.

I had a few chances in the early games to turn double plays and didn’t field the ball cleanly in the tiny glove and had to settle for just getting the force at second.  We did, however, turn two on a 5-4-3 DP in the championship game later in the day.

I’ve always been vocal on the field and telling the outfielders where to throw the ball on cut plays and the like, but I couldn’t translate into Spanish quick enough for the first couple of games.  In the first game I did collide with the first baseman, because I was yelling “I got it,” which meant absolutely nothing to him.  Fortunately, he was taller and made the catch.  But, by the third game, I got the idea and started yelling to the outfielders “tercera base” when the throw needed to go to third.

It was re-assuring that I could play baseball on the same level as much younger Cubans, especially given that I was the oldest player on the field.  I had represented my country well as did the Canadian guy who belted several long shots that nearly hit the left field fence.

The four big fields at the park all had three full nine-player teams of adult men playing on them.  The winner of the game got to stay on the field and the loser had to sit much like we do in the USA with pickup basketball games.  A unique scoring solution was in place that I never completely understood.  Basically, there was a mercy run rule in place after three, five, and seven innings of a nine inning game.  If you were ahead by a certain amount of runs at these points in the game, the game was over.  If the game was close, you kept playing.

Trash talk and arguments were taken to a new level, but it was all in good fun.  I have a working knowledge of Spanish so when I spoke with a player directly I could usually understand most of what they were saying.  When an argument ensued, however, they spoke too fast for me to keep up.  If it was a close strike, it was obvious what the disagreement was about, but sometimes an argument started and I would look at the Canadian guy and ask him what was going on.  He had less of a clue than I did in most cases.  Just when you thought the argument might turn to blows, however, one guy would back down and the game played on with no lasting grudges.

A Tournament on Every Field

In our first game, the game was close so it went the complete nine innings, but we lost.  Therefore, we had to sit a game.  During this time, I walked over to the small field where three young teams of boys 12 and under were practicing.  One team had uniforms, but the rest did not.   They had coaches actively working with them.  I had brought a dozen new baseballs to Cuba for just this occasion so I took this opportunity to introduce myself and present the new baseballs to them in exchange for getting a picture with the team.  When I said I was from los estados unidos, the boys were very anxious to meet me and all jumped out of the stands to come down and talk baseball in Spanish with me.  One boy saw the Phillies logo on my cap and asked me if I knew Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez–a former player on the Industriales de Habana and a member of the Cuban National Team who signed this past off-season with Philadelphia.

Cuban youth baseball players fighting over new baseballs

HELP!: When I said I would give the boys new baseballs, they all began grabbing at them until a Mom came down and yelled at them. Mom’s are the same everywhere.

The first group of boys that I posed with grabbed at the baseballs until one of the mothers came down and yelled at them to behave; I’m sure none of them owned their own new baseball.  I then realized that it would be better if I gave the other new balls to the coaches so I did that and there was a lot less chaos because of it.  I told the coaches that I was also a youth baseball coach in the United States and this was a gift from the USA.  They were very appreciative to have new baseballs to work with and thanked me many times over.

Posing with young baseball team in Cuba

After giving American Legion baseballs to the kids in Cuba.

Cuban baseball players boys

After the initial onslaught, I got wiser and called the coaches over to give them the new baseballs.

Cuban baseball coaches

Coaches training their players on a one-arm drill.

 

We won the second game in just five innings and the third game in five innings as well.  It was now getting close to dusk and I had played 19 innings in 89 degree heat so I figured (ok hoped), that we were done.  But, we weren’t.

Since both teams were 2-1 on the day, the guys said we would play another three inning game for the championship of the field.  There was time, they said, for exactly three more innings before it was too dark to play any longer.  A new white ball would be used, because it was getting hard to see the old balls and it was, after all, the championship game.  They nailed the time limit.

Helped by some errors and a tiring pitcher who was getting the ball up in the zone, our team exploded for a nine-run second inning in the final game to cruise to a 10-4 win and the field championship for the day.  Fittingly, the final out was a pop up to second base which was just on the outfield grass and I was able to easily drift back and make the catch in the tiny glove they gave me.  As I jogged toward the pitcher’s mound to congratulate the pitcher and my new teammates, they said that they would sign the ball for me and let me take it home.  Although I would have liked that, there was no way that I was taking one of the only four baseballs that they had in the bag so that I could keep it as a souvenir.

Can you imagine?  These guys had four baseballs between all of them and they were willing to give me one of them as a souvenir!

Americans playing baseball in Cuba

AMIGOS DE BEISBOL: In case you were wondering, I’m the white dude in the front and the Canadian guy is the white dude in the back. On my right (pink hat dude) is the hotel bellman. Our pitcher and owner of the ’52 Chevy is laying in front. The guy on the right with the Phillies cap is the team captain. The guy in the white shirt behind me was the shortstop. Beside him in the black shirt is the guy who drove the tourist bicycle.

Baseball team in Cuba

THERE’S NO POLITICS IN TEAM: Anybody who thinks sports isn’t important should see how baseball brought this diverse group of people together.

Cuban-American Baseball

I am pretty sure that I earned their respect as a baseball player and a person that day.  They saw me hustling in game four when I was obviously very hot and tired.  They saw me donate new baseballs to the youth teams.  They saw me give up the caps off my head.  And, perhaps most important (and maybe the real reason they asked me to play), I paid for half of the cerveza.

Anybody who says that baseball isn’t important should have been on that field that day.  Here was a middle-aged man (ok upper middle aged) playing 22 innings of baseball in stifling heat with two dozen young Cuban men.  This was not the evil Communist empire of Fidel Castro that I had heard about as a child.  These were happy people who had so very little in common with a guy like me.  I’m sure that I probably had more money back in my suitcase than all of the Cuban guys on that field combined.

But, we shared one commonality – one common love that was the love we both shared with baseball.  For that day, in this one tiny moment, nobody cared about the Bay of Pigs, Guantanamo Bay, Fidel Castro, JFK, or 53 years of sanctions by a very large and powerful country over its very small and poor neighbor that is clearly no longer any greater threat to the American way of life than The Bahamas is.

For two countries and two people so very different, baseball is one commonality for which we can build a lasting and ever improving relationship.

As we were drinking the Cristal beer after the game, one wise young Cuban man said to me: “it is not our people that have the problem with each other; it is our government that has problems with each other.”  Well said.

I then remembered that I promised him my cap earlier so I gave it to him and thanked him for allowing me to play baseball with them.

He then gave me a hug and said in English: “you play baseball very good.”

You don’t know how much that meant to me.

Cuban youth baseball player

This boy wearing an Industriales uniform came over to me during our third game and asked for a ball and I had one left.

Read my article about professional baseball in Cuba here.

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