Getting a taste of baseball Cuba style

Staff writer Carroll Rogers traveled to Cuba recently and filed this essay on her baseball experience there.

Those who are lucky enough to travel to Cuba say it’s like going back in time. Curvy old Chevys run the roads like they did in the U.S. in the 1950s. People cruise Havana in motorcycles with sidecars.

Cuba1a

Carroll Rogers and the newest Braves fans in Matanzas, Cuba

From furniture to fixtures, our neighboring communist island nation can seem a little frozen in time, especially in rural areas where horse-drawn plows aren’t out of the question.

For this writer, who was lucky enough to travel to Cuba last week with a group from Trinity Presbyterian Church, it felt like going back in time in another way too: baseball.

Americans call it their pastime. Cubans live it. From the boys walking proudly down city streets with bats propped on their shoulders, to the haphazard fields along country roads, one after the other, dotted with boys playing baseball.

There’s even a square in Havana’s Central Park, where our tour guide told us men gather to argue about baseball. Right on cue, we approached a pack of 20 or so men in full jaw.

The Braves had donated 10 caps for me to take, so I set out to Cuba hoping to find 10 boys who would be tickled to have them. Along the way, I got a taste of the sport Cubans simply call “bol,” short for beisbol.

It started with an impromptu trip to Estadio Latinoamericano, Latin American Stadium, after someone in our group learned over breakfast that the Industriales – Cuba’s version of the Yankees – were playing that night.

By the time we pulled up to the stadium, the one where the Orioles played the Cuban national team in 1999, it was the sixth inning. The Industriales were down 3-0, but from outside it hardly sounded like a place where the home team was being one-hit.

Feeding off the excitement of our bus driver Orestes, an otherwise quiet guy, we virtually skipped up to the stadium, where we were directed to a ticket window designated for foreigners. Based on what we’d been told, we were charged more than the locals, but our tickets were the equivalent of $3 each. Who was going to argue?

To our surprise, Orestes led us to a section cordoned off for tourists only a few rows behind home plate. The place was buzzing.

The stands were fairly dark because all the light banks were aimed at the field, but silhouettes of faces stretched as far as you could see down the left and right field lines. The music never let up, drums and horns keeping a steady beat, first from a group playing when the Industriales batted, in their crisp blue and white uniforms, and another when the visiting team in green and gold, like a bad 1980s Oakland As uniform, took the plate.

Structurally, it looked like old Luther Williams Field in Macon, with a roof extending over the stands and netting all the way up, but on a much grander scale. Apparently it holds up to 55,000 people.

On this night, the aqua blue outfield bleachers were empty, which made them disappear into the outfield fence and façade of the same color. Not a speck of advertizing could be found, only a scoreboard, which to my initial confusion listed strikes before balls.

Outside the stadium, a billboard read “El Triunfo Estara En La Suma Del Esfuerzo De Todos. Fidel.” “The triumph will be in the sum of the efforts of all.” Fidel, as in Castro.

We stayed only a few innings, but the level of play seemed similar to high Single-A or Double-A, and the excitement like a major league postseason game. As the Industriales rallied to tie the game 3-3, we were jumping up and down, high-fiving along with the rest of the crowd, even though we didn’t know a soul in either uniform.

Once we thought we heard a name when fans chanted “Gor-do,” “Gor-do,” only to find out that’s the Spanish word for fat. They were razzing a pudgy hitter as he headed back to the visiting dugout after striking out.

Cuba2a

A batter for Cuba's Industriales eyes a pitch at Latin American Stadium in Havana

There weren’t many hard-hit balls, maybe only two out of the infield, but the Industriales’ shortstop did turn one impossible hop into a routine play.

The Industriales rallied to win in the bottom of the ninth, but by then we were walking out to beat the crowd and rejoin our group at a jazz club. We passed military police lined shoulder to shoulder around two buses, apparently to protect visiting players from flying objects after the game. It was reminiscent of Shea Stadium in June of 2000 for John Rocker’s first visit back after his Sports Illustrated rant about New Yorkers and the No. 7 train.

Surprisingly, nobody among several people I asked at the ballpark that night or around town the day before had heard of Yunel Escobar, Jose Contreras, or Yoenis Cespedes, a sampling of current, former and future Cuban players in the majors, respectively. Of course, it’s not like the Cuban press is giving publicity to defectors, and even still there’s probably limited access to newspapers and TV. Or maybe my accent was just bad.

The folks I came across seemed to love the game just for the game, like the boys Orestes found one day in Matanzas, a town I learned later had hosted the first official game in Cuba in 1874.

Our translator explained to a small group of 9, 10, and 11 year-olds that a journalist from Atlanta wanted to share new Braves caps with them. One kid promptly tossed his bright pink cap to the ground. Most of his buddies weren’t wearing anything on their heads.

Through our translator, I told them about Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who had left Cuba when he was 2 but was curious about what life was like for boys like them and how I would be sure to tell him about them.

We distributed the caps to seven boys, who saved the extras for several other boys who walked up. One was a toddler waddling up with his mother, only to cry and run back to her when a group of 16 Americans started clapping and cheering at the sight of his small head in a big Braves cap.

“Thank you,” they said, their English much better than our Spanish. They smiled as we snapped one photo after another.

As we began to walk away and the formality of the moment gave way to boys being boys, I turned to see them jumping up and down and shouting, as they hurriedly picked up their bats and gloves and started tossing balls around again.

As our old school bus pulled away, windows down, warm breeze blowing in as it picked up speed, somebody shouted “look!”

For a group of photo fiends, nobody could get their camera up in time. But the scene is one I’ll never forget: nine boys, spread out over the field, smiling and waving their caps at us.

77 comments Add your comment

Venice Jim

February 13th, 2012
1:45 pm

Great job, Carroll!

Jay

February 13th, 2012
1:51 pm

How many mojitos did you have? lol

Ken Stallings

February 13th, 2012
1:52 pm

Carroll,

The sadder fact is most likely the explanation. Many of those people you asked may well have been more than just familiar with those three Cuban players now in MLB. That would especially seem true for Cespedes, who only recently defected.

However, for any of them to have acknowledged this would have set them up for a lurking member of the secret police to start asking them uncomfortable questions.

Andy

February 13th, 2012
1:55 pm

Tremendous writing Carroll.

Who Cares

February 13th, 2012
1:56 pm

Did you visit with Fidel Casrto ?

Mongoloid

February 13th, 2012
2:03 pm

Chipper : “You sit back and you watch some of the other teams in your division make moves, you’re thinking to yourself, ‘They’re getting better by the day.’ But that’s the nature of the beast. It really doesn’t mean anything.

Mongoloid : Chipper, when Braves are in 4th place on September 5th I’m gonna repost this quote of yours !

Damien

February 13th, 2012
2:03 pm

Carroll I love you so much…

Orq. MaCuba

February 13th, 2012
2:21 pm

Ah Matanzas Cuba, The Birthplace of my Lovely Wife. Thank you for your article. My wife and I both made it a point to send Atlanta Braves Jerseys to our Uncle and Cousin in Cuba. The interesting thing was that when we spoke to our cousin who was here with the Cuban Kayak Olympic team (Lake Lanier) a couple of years ago about Baseball he mentioned that Cuba had a fondness for the Florida Marlins. Well both my Wife and I made sure that since he was at the Olympic Games here in Georgia that we would only send Atlanta Braves Memorabilia to our uncle in Matanzas, Cuba. Thanks again for the Article it made for a nice break from our daily work routine.

Respectfully,

EJL
Orquesta MaCuba

snoopy

February 13th, 2012
2:31 pm

First to say “FIRST”…? I’ll take it

Stinger2

February 13th, 2012
2:42 pm

Mongoloid: Great post! That comment by Chipper was one of the dumbest I have ever heard. It seems like all of the Braves from management on down are talking like the epic collapse never happened. They don`t seem to realize thatthe fans are not buying all that crap.

Mongoloid

February 13th, 2012
2:54 pm

Thanks. I’ll also be here to eat crowe if Braves win division. But most likely finish 4th,possibly squeek out 3rd. The Phillies & Marlins are way better than Braves are though.

snowball's chance

February 13th, 2012
2:56 pm

Thanks for this story. I have wanted to visit Cuba for baseball, music and cigars for a long time.

Mongoloid

February 13th, 2012
2:57 pm

Braves success hinges on Hanson,Hudson,Jurrjens coming off injuries and Prado,Uggla,& Heyward coming off slump years. That’s a lot that needs to go right to be a contender.

Surgeon General

February 13th, 2012
2:58 pm

I’ve declared that smoking tobacco products is hazardous to your health.

Surgeon General

February 13th, 2012
3:00 pm

I have declared also that Jason Heyward is a AA player disguising himself in a MLB uniform…

Carroll Rogers

February 13th, 2012
3:46 pm

Thanks Venice Jim, Andy, etc…..Ken Stallings, not sure it’s quite that bad. I talked to a lot of people and asked a lot of questions and got a lot of candid answers….

Very cool to hear what you had to say Orquesta. Thanks for the post!

Mucho mojitos, Jay, mucho!

richbrave

February 13th, 2012
5:42 pm

Interesting CARROLL. THANX. I have wanted to go to CUBA most of my adult life. My wife doesn’t. The ‘Gone with the Wind syndrome,’ you know. She has a movie director/professor friend from work that wants to do a documentary film on the changes that have occurred in her hometown since she left in the fall of 1962. Obviously, one thing that has not changed is youngsters playing ‘bol.’ Good read.

T-Bone

February 13th, 2012
5:50 pm

Mongoloid, we also need Freeman to not have a sophmore slump, and Tyler P to play good defense at SS.

richbrave

February 13th, 2012
6:01 pm

T-Bone:

Not to worry. This will be the BRAVES year. All good things come to those who stand and wait. Our off-season will out.

DawgDad

February 13th, 2012
6:08 pm

T-Bone and Mongoloid: We could add about a dozen more huge question marks for the Braves in 2012 to your lists. But you don’t have to go far past the prospects of playing an untested and defensively untouted rookie shortstop between Chipper and Uggla to understand this doesn’t figure to be a banner year. It is VERY rare for teams with sub-par defensive infields to make any noise; Milwaukee last season was a rare exception.

[...] the rest here: Getting a taste of baseball Cuba style – Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) Related Posts:Pitchers and catchers report soon, Hanson without hitch – Atlanta Journal [...]

AtlantaMelo

February 13th, 2012
6:25 pm

Thanks for the story Carroll. As an American born in Cuba it’s important that visitors understand that there is a certain fear to be candid about many things. Think about it, you never hear the Cuban ballplayers that escape and end up playing baseball in the states complain about anything back home in Cuba. Why? They still have family in Cuba that like an old USSR movie can dissapear. Cuba is still a communist dictatorial state where citizens must be careful of what they say in front of whom.

AtlantaMelo

February 13th, 2012
6:25 pm

Thanks for the story Carroll. As an American born in Cuba it’s important that visitors understand that there is a certain fear to be candid about many things. Think about it, you never hear the Cuban ballplayers that escape and end up playing baseball in the states complain about anything back home in Cuba. Why? They still have family in Cuba that like an old USSR movie can dissapear. Cuba is still a communist dictatorial state where citizens must be careful of what they say in front of whom.

Tom O'Hawke

February 13th, 2012
6:43 pm

Thank you, Carroll, for this very interesting article. My only fear, however, is that poor McFann will hear chants of, “Gor-do”, “Gor-do”, from some of the idiots on DOB’s blog, about McCann. ;)

Hiawatha Terrell Wade

February 13th, 2012
6:58 pm

Can any of those kids play left?

Braves Fan in the Upper Deck

February 13th, 2012
7:01 pm

Thank you for this piece, Carroll.

This was my favorite AJC read in some time.

By the way, are you single, Carroll?

Ever date a Baptist Braves Fan?

richbrave

February 13th, 2012
7:20 pm

Boo-yah CARROLL. The fan in the upper deck is calling.

Gil In Mechanicsville

February 13th, 2012
7:50 pm

Great read Carrol, one must remember an important fact about Cuban youngsters, it is pretty hard to miss something you have never had. Thanks for the insight and look forward to your post this year. I’m on the 60 day DL so I won’t make it to spring training but hope to be able to travel by August to make the games when the Braves play the Gnats.

David the Shepherd

February 13th, 2012
8:03 pm

Very vivid description and excellent writing, Carroll. No offense to DOB, but I look forward to reading your works more than his. Keep it up!! GO BRAVES!!!!

Orange Brave f/k/a Billy Jack's BBQ

February 13th, 2012
8:27 pm

Great writing. Pulitizer type work. Very descriptive. Makes me feel like I was there. I have always wanted to visit Cuba for the climate, cigars and women. Now I will add baseball to my list.

Reminds me of quarter beer night growing up in Knoxville during my college years. Old cars, wornout stadium, and fans cheering like mad dogs.

David the Shepherd

February 13th, 2012
8:43 pm

Gordo Fredi wouldn’t pony up some Braves items to dole out?

Bill

February 13th, 2012
8:54 pm

Super job Carroll..very interesting and good PR. can’t wait for season to start.Be careful and enjoy.

David O'Brien

February 13th, 2012
8:54 pm

Very vivid description and excellent writing, Carroll. No offense to DOB, but I look forward to reading your works more than his. Keep it up!! GO BRAVES!!!!David the Shepherd

Thanks, Shepherd. And I appreciate your works.

bulldogbubba

February 13th, 2012
8:57 pm

Play ‘bol. Thanks for a good read.DOB your a good read also.Looking forward to Spring Training.

bulldogbubba

February 13th, 2012
8:59 pm

It should make us Americans appreciate what we have.

3trees

February 13th, 2012
9:16 pm

Carroll – Beautiful piece, thanks! I love this; “…20 or so men in full jaw.” That sounds southern to me, but wherever it’s from, it’s really well played.

Go Braves!

Frenk Wran

February 13th, 2012
9:21 pm

I’ll sign, sight unseen, any of the Gordo Cuban players for $12m per year for 3 years.

Jack Wilkinson

February 14th, 2012
1:21 am

Enter your comments here It’s pathetic that you people continue to short-change Carroll Rodgers on this blog. She has to write it on a fairly regular basis, yet you don’t run a logo with her photo and many of the dolts — uh, readers — who read and respond think it’s O’Brien who’s writing it on that particular day. In this e-age of computers, it’s ridiculous that you don’t give Carroll a column sig of her own, complete with photo. Especially when she’s writing such a fine piece from Cuba. Fix it, fellas. Now.

Surgeon General

February 14th, 2012
8:08 am

Josh Hamilton is a loser.

John Pappadoppagapoulas

February 14th, 2012
8:44 am

Man, I am so jealous. That would be a great trip.
I am really stoked it’s opening day for the Dawgs “Bol” team in Athens this Friday! YAHOO! I have been training hard for the last month. I’m up to four hot dogs,a bag of peanuts and three cokes.
We take on the dreaded Blue Hose of Presbyterian.

henry tn

February 14th, 2012
8:45 am

i am concerned about josh hamilton

beachcomber

February 14th, 2012
9:50 am

Carroll – Thank you for an excellent piece. You captured for many of us how frozen in time is Cuba is in many ways – right down to the sandlots we enjoyed as kids of the fifties and sixties.

Fiddlin John Carson

February 14th, 2012
9:59 am

Ms. Rodgers….Excellent story…excellent writing. Those dirt poor Cuban boys playing pick up games remind me of my youth baseball experience in 1970’s Winston Georgia…when American kids still played just for the love of the game. I would love to coach a youth team down there.

I have a bat bag that the average American kid carries to his games. It contains two Easton bats….a mizuno and rawlings glove…and a pair of nike cleats….Hundreds of dollars worth of equipment that almost every American kid has to have to play organized baseball. I would have gladly donated the bag to give them Cuban boys along with their hats.

Fiddlin John Carson
Austell, GA

PMC

February 14th, 2012
10:10 am

Great Article Carroll thanks, hoping that one day soon the US will allow it’s citizens to travel freely between the US and Cuba again.

Tallcarl

February 14th, 2012
10:39 am

Now that’s good writing. I am a middle Ga. braves fan from way back and I live in Barranquilla, Colombia one block from Tomas Arrietta Baseball park. Yes, home of some known players like Edgar Renteria and forty minutes from Cartagena the home one of our new young pitchers but the outside of the park is unmaintained and the crowds sparse. I thought when I left Spain I could get away from ‘futbol’ madness but the cround of several hundred makes the stadium seem empty. My family owned several Macon Braves season Tickets and I am broken hearted and badly disappointed to come here and not even be able to get my new friends up for a game together. A Pity.

Big Chief

February 14th, 2012
10:54 am

Great article CR.

Nice of Liberty Media to spare 10 caps-cheap as always. A new twist on “salary cap”.

Choppinmama

February 14th, 2012
12:50 pm

Carroll: what a great experience for you! Thanks for sharing it with all of us. Did you have to go two out of three with DOB to see who gets to go? Or was it a case of “you get to cover most of spring training, so I get to go to Cuba?” Or, did you just hide his passport?

Looking forward to more good reportage from you both this season.

Chappinmama

February 14th, 2012
12:53 pm

Average Joe admits pubicly to using drugs and SWAT team swarms his house ! Josh Hamilton admits using drugs again and no word about cops checking his house. America is pathetic in many ways in regards to the law.

Boat Doc

February 14th, 2012
2:14 pm

Super piece, Carroll – you’ve added an international flavor to the air of anticipation that surrounds what I think are the four most hopeful words of American English: “Pitchers and Catchers Report.”

Neely

February 14th, 2012
3:03 pm

Wow, and AJC Braves article worth reading…Haven’t seen this in a LOOONG while

Neely

February 14th, 2012
3:04 pm

Jack Wilkinson is totally correct on this one

ATLcracker

February 14th, 2012
5:30 pm

I agree with Jack Wilkinson this is really getting WEIRD. Why isn’t Carroll getting her due? She writes consistently great articles and this has been going on for a long time now. No picture. Tiny little byline under picture of the great DOB. (I don’t mean great facetiously- I really enjoy Dave’s work). Is there some petition we could sign? Somebody we could call?

honeybee

February 14th, 2012
5:33 pm

great article Carroll, maybe you can sign some of those kids. They got to be better than what we got.

Gustopher

February 14th, 2012
6:00 pm

I agree with Jack. I have been saying for a long time that CR deserves her own picture to go with her byline. Great read CR. Hope you have a great Valentine’s Day

collegeballfan

February 14th, 2012
6:47 pm

Carroll is one hell of a writer. Good prose!

San Diego Dreamin'

February 14th, 2012
6:56 pm

Wow, DOB are you so intimidated by Carroll’s writing that you can’t even give her props. Go crunch your numbers and spew them into a blog. Shouldn’t you be packing for spring training?

David O’Brien

February 13th, 2012
8:54 pm

Very vivid description and excellent writing, Carroll. No offense to DOB, but I look forward to reading your works more than his. Keep it up!! GO BRAVES!!!! — David the Shepherd

Thanks, Shepherd. And I appreciate your works.

David O'Brien

February 14th, 2012
7:00 pm

Wow, DOB are you so intimidated by Carroll’s writing that you can’t even give her props. Go crunch your numbers and spew them into a blog. Shouldn’t you be packing for spring training?San Diego Dreamin’

Unbelievable.

San Diego Dreamin'

February 14th, 2012
7:02 pm

Yes it is. You can’t leave it alone

San Diego Dreamin'

February 14th, 2012
7:56 pm

Hello,
Is there anybody in there
Just nod if you can hear me
Is there anybody home?

Odelay

February 14th, 2012
8:43 pm

Do you happen to know if the Braves have been scouting Jorge Soler? He’s been a fairly well-discussed Cuban 19-yr old that’s trying to become a free agent before this coming season. I would love to know if they’ve been interested in him. Thanks!!!

Odelay

February 14th, 2012
8:43 pm

Carrol,

Do you happen to know if the Braves have been scouting Jorge Soler? He’s been a fairly well-discussed Cuban 19-yr old that’s trying to become a free agent before this coming season. I would love to know if they’ve been interested in him. Thanks!!!

Odelay

February 14th, 2012
8:45 pm

sorry for the double post! thought i’d stopped it from sending in time to address it to carroll!

David the Shepherd

February 14th, 2012
8:48 pm

Thanks Dave, I appreciate it. Thanks SD Dreamin’…comfortably numb is a good attitude sometimes.

Ryan

February 15th, 2012
11:03 am

Lets get some Braves discussion going here. Anyone want to take stabs at what the 25 man looks like? Where are the final spot battles going to be?

Ryan

February 15th, 2012
2:46 pm

Wes Jorga

February 15th, 2012
3:41 pm

Why isn’t Evan Gattis a higher prospect. Arguably he had the best offensive stats of anyone in the system.

Ken Stallings

February 15th, 2012
3:46 pm

I agree that it is time for the AJC to give Carroll Rogers her own blog credit and photo. It would also have the value of ending the pointless and unfair inferences a few people have that Dave O’Brien is somehow trying to keep the woman down!

Ryan

February 15th, 2012
4:17 pm

This blog, with the reaction readers get after recommendations and questions, probably deserves the title, “Getting a taste of baseball Cuba style.”

Dirty Dawg

February 15th, 2012
5:29 pm

Since there was no opportunity to comment on the piece about Tommy Hanson’s change in delivery to reduce the stress and strain on his shoulder, I thought I’d do here. The article pointed out that the ’short-armed’ delivery he has been using all this time was the likely cause of his problem. The piece also said that the idea of making the change was Hanson’s. What I want to know is why the Braves brain trust hadn’t come to this conclusion on their own and years ago? I mean if I could see it…and I’ve been saying so here for as long as I’ve been watching Hanson pitch…then why couldn’t the guys getting paid to?

Bill in VA

February 15th, 2012
10:17 pm

Amen, Dirty Dawg! Agree completely!

50 years

February 16th, 2012
2:26 am

How is that economic boycott working for the people of Cuba?

Rick in Macon

February 16th, 2012
7:17 am

Sounds like Communist propaganda. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig. Geez.

PMC

February 16th, 2012
4:27 pm

How does a cool article involving a doubly cool Luther Williams Field reference devolve into some kind of blargument?

DOB and Carroll I’m sure have an outstanding professional relationship considering they work so closely together on the same beat. Geez.

I

Frenk Wran

February 16th, 2012
5:44 pm

I’ll sign any Cuban Gordo, any time.

Obee

February 16th, 2012
8:55 pm

Braves fans are spoiled. It is nothing short of amazing that, in this age of shrinking newsroom budgets, the AJC has two very good reporters/writers to cover the Braves. I think of DOB and Carroll as a tag team. They have completely different styles, but I love them both.

MIBravesFan

February 17th, 2012
10:38 pm

Very good story. Thanks, Carroll!

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September 25th, 2013
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