By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan | Boston Globe Staff
There are few places outside of Boston, New York, Houston, and St. Louis where the Major League playoffs are being followed with such keen interest as on this baseball-crazy island. Every day, upwards of 100 men, young and old, pay a visit to the ‘‘Esquina Caliente,” or ‘‘hot corner” in Havana’s Central Park—a legendary spot under shady trees where from morning to nightfall, aficionados of a game that both Cubans and Americans claim as their own national pastime come to relive the previous night’s plays.
Yesterday, all the talk was of the dramatic 14-inning Red Sox victory Monday night to stay in the league championship series. But Cuban fans—especially those fiercely loyal to Yankees pitcher Orlando ‘‘El Duque” Hernandez—put the odds on the Yanks to head to the World Series.
‘‘I saw last night’s game . . . at a friend’s house, and it was a fight between lions—either team deserves to be in the World Series,” gushed Enrique Rodriguez, 26, who stopped by before work to describe in grand gestures the most dramatic plays for dozens of earnestly nodding fans who weren’t lucky enough to see the games.
Television broadcasts from the United States are blocked by the Cuban government, so only a small minority of Cubans who can afford illegal satellite dishes or have access to tourist hotels can watch Major League games. Others struggle to tune in Miami radio stations, and the few who have Internet access print out box scores and team standings and bring them along to share. Most fans catch up on the latest results and baseball gossip via word of mouth, and tempers fly over which teams are playing the best.
A hot topic these days is the recent defection of six promising young Cuban players—the largest mass desertion of baseball players since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. The group turned up in the Florida Keys this month after two days at sea. The one who fans predict will have the best shot at the majors is Yunel Guevara, 21, who helped his team, the Havana Industriales, win last year’s Cuban national championship.
Not unjustifiably, Cubans see themselves as a baseball powerhouse: Havana invests heavily in its sports programs, and Cuba won gold in three of the four Olympic baseball contests—in 1992, 1996, and this year in Athens.
But the latest defections come on the heels of other high-profile desertions in the last two years by top pitchers including Jose Contreras and first baseman/outfielder Kendry Morales. Some 50 elite Cuban players have left since 1991, most headed to the United States, and fans here worry that the exodus of talent is taking its toll on the Cuban league, whose new season starts next month. The government condemns sports defectors, and harshly punishes those it suspects of talking to talent scouts. But fans have mixed feelings toward their countrymen who seek their fortunes overseas.
‘‘Look at Contreras—he made $50 a month here, and now he makes $8 million a season,” said Antonio Perez, 41, an unemployed restaurant worker. ‘‘The first who defected was Rene Arocha in 1991 when the economic difficulties began here, and since then, it’s been like a conveyor belt of players on the way out. Of course we’re sorry, because we can’t have the joy of following their careers, and they can’t visit and have contact with their fans. But I’m happy they’ve bettered their lives and we’re proud of them as Cubans.”
Cuba has a long history of its top talent heading north; in 1911, two Cubans became the first foreign-born players in the major leagues. Of 120 foreigners in the major leagues before the 1959 revolution, 81 were Cubans, according to Ismael Sene, 76, a retired Cuban diplomat and unofficial baseball historian.
But by the late ‘50s, Cuban baseball was dying, Sene said, because so many players had gone to the majors and were not returning in winter to play in their national league. A surprise result of the revolution and collapse of US-Cuban relations was to revive Cuban play.
Back at the ‘‘hot corner,” fan Antonio Perez seemed to be alone in rooting for the Sox. ‘‘The Yankees have too much money and they pay too much for players—it’s not fair. I hope Boston can beat them.”
Juan Diaz, 46, a mechanic, shook his head at Perez as if he were delusional. ‘‘That team is cursed!”