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.
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.
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.