By Joe Connor / Special to MLB.com
An Island of Youth player lays down a bunt in a recent Cuban National League game. (Joe Connor/MLB.com)
With Cuba having recently marked the 45th anniversary of its revolution, MLB.com contributor Joe Connor visited this Caribbean baseball hotbed for more than three weeks. He visited their academies, sports institutes and ballparks across the country’s 14 provinces. Today, the third part of a weeklong series, taking baseball fans inside “The Forbidden Isle.”
In his autobiography, baseball’s great international ambassador, Tommy Lasorda, recounts one of the last professional games played on Cuban soil, in 1959, just nine days after Fidel Castro’s troops overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista.
In the fourth inning, Castro’s bearded men, known as the “barbudas” because they had been hiding in the Sierra Maestra Mountains of eastern Cuba, suddenly left the ballpark. Minutes later, Lasorda recalls hearing machine-gun fire close by as the game continued uninterrupted. The barbudas returned to the ballpark 20 minutes later, having just executed 30 Batista holdouts in a nearby building.
A lot has changed in Cuba since that January day 45 years ago except for two important details: Castro remains in charge and baseball is still Cuba’s passion. Today, games are played without gunfire ringing outside its ballparks, Cuba is a socialist nation, and is considered one of the safest in the world, especially for foreign visitors.
Amateur baseball planted its seeds in Cuba in 1961 after the Communist government instituted a state-run amateur sports program patterned after the sports machines of the Soviet bloc. The 2003-04 season marks the 43rd for the country’s famed 16-team National League.
Each of the island’s 14 province’s fields one team, with Havana boasting two teams: the much-loved (and loathed) defending champion Industriales Blue Lions (known simply as the Blues) and the second-tier Metropolitan Warriors. The 16 clubs are divided into two leagues and within each are two divisions. Traditional powers within each group include Group A’s Pinar del Rio, formerly known as the Tobacco Cowboys, which owns eight titles; Group B’s Industriales, with a league-leading nine championships; Group C’s Villa Clara Orange Growers, who have won four championships, and Group D’s Santiago de Cuba Wasps, who have won five crowns.
With Caribbean weather at its most favorable during the winter months, Cuba’s 90-game regular season schedule runs December to April and is followed by a three-round playoff format, featuring best-of-five quarterfinals, best-of-seven semifinals, and a best-of-seven final. Monday’s are off days and the league also takes a break the last week of December ahead of Liberation Day (Jan. 1), and again in late January or February before its annual all-star game.
Each club carries 30 players, but only 25 players travel for road games. The league employs the designated hitter. Most clubs include three catchers (some as many as four), 12-13 pitchers, 7-9 infielders and 7-9 outfielders. Each team also has a manager (called a “director”); three assistants, including a hitting and pitching coach; a doctor; massage therapist; psychologist, and four trainers (two of whom focus solely on the improving the players’ physiques).
Cuba’s ballparks are mostly similar to Japan’s, designed in a more oval shape that results in a significant amount of foul territory in the infield and behind home plate. Typical field dimensions are 325 feet down the lines, 360-380 feet to the gaps, and 410 feet to center, with many outfield fences no more than six to seven feet high. About half of the ballparks feature actual dugouts.
With ample foul territory, all relief pitchers warm up down the lines as only one ballpark, Cesar Oscar Sandino Stadium in Santa Clara, features bullpens beyond the outfield fences. Most Monday-Saturday games begin at 8 p.m., with Sunday games usually starting at 2 p.m. The Island of Youth’s Cristobal Labra Stadium is Cuba’s ultimate throwback, with no ballpark lights and occasional contests starting at 10 a.m. As in Japan, each club will play a series of “countryside games” early in the season so fans living outside the provincial capitals can see their team, too.
National League alumni include pitchers Jose Contreras and Danys Baez, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez (Industriales), Rolando Arrojo (Villa Clara), Livan Hernandez (Island of Youth Pines) and Maels Rodriguez (Sancti Spiritus). Players draw their salaries from mandatory day jobs for which they earn $10-15 (U.S.) per month.
While winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Colombia welcome foreigners to its shores to play baseball, Cuba’s National League does not. There are no trades or free agent signings on the Caribbean’s largest island. The best players in each province take the field for their province, period, and age range is from 16-40. Season-to-season turnover can be significant, with some teams carrying as many as nine rookies. Yet the overall formula hasn’t changed much in 43 years.
Cubans play fundamental baseball to the core. If the No. 2 hitter in the batting order starts off an inning with a single, the No. 3 hitter is likely to bunt to advance the runner. It is also not unusual for the annual batting champion to finish with a .400 or better average, as was the case last season when Osmani Urrutia, who is slated to start in right field on the Olympic team later this year, finished with a .453 clip. Last season’s home run leader was Urrutia’s Las Tunas and Olympic teammate Juan Carlos Pedrosa, a first baseman who crushed 28 homers.
As in other counties, Cuba has its baseball customs. Some hitters will shake the umpire’s or even the opposing catcher’s hand before stepping into the batter’s box for their first at-bat. When a player crosses the plate after a home run and then heads toward the dugout, all of his teammates are lined up in a straight row, ready to greet him with high-fives. When a pitching change is made, it is not uncommon for the pitcher to pat his replacement on the back and offer words of encouragement before exiting for the dugout. Under no circumstances will he tip his cap to the crowd. When a team is rallying, it is also not unusual for players on the bench to be sitting together in unison like well-behaved schoolchildren—and clapping together in unison.
Still, what really makes Cuba’s historic National League so different from all other Cuban institutions is that baseball and its ballparks serve as one of the few outlets where citizens can truly exercise freedom of expression. Freedom of speech about any and all aspects of “pelota,” what Cubans call baseball, are not quelled by the dozen or more police that patrol the ballparks and shadow the players. In fact, the animated and affectionate Cubans are rarely silent, even in the first inning of a scoreless game. The body language of umpires is animated, too, especially when calling a hitter out on strikes.
Cubans exclaim a variety of expressions both good and bad, in between multiple whistles, hisses and chants, such as “Buena jugada!” (Good play!) and “Pon-chal-o!” (Strike him out!), or when an infielder boots a routine ground ball, “Torpe! Torpe!” (Clumsy! Clumsy!). One of the league’s traditions is the sound of “oohs” and “aahs” that radiate from enthusiastic fans when the public-address announcer delivers in-game scores from other contests going on around the country. And if fans aren’t watching their provincial team in person, chances are they’re watching their local team at home on television.
“Like in America, baseball is our national pastime,” said Diguo Rodriguez, a 27-year radio play-by-play announcer of Cuba’s national teams, whose home run call is “Paule Musica!” (Play Music!). “Everyone in Cuba loves baseball.”
Pre-game rituals: Getting to the ballpark in Cuba can be half the fun. Who needs a car when you can take a bicycle or even a horse, and you can bring your dog? Most Cubans can’t afford a car, so the most common mode of transportation is a “bicicleta.” Each ballpark has designated sections where locals can drop off their bike and it will be secured at no charge. If you’re a visitor to Cuba, chances are your cab driver—cruising in a 1957 Ford Fairlane featuring cracked windshields and seemingly emitting more air pollution than a coal factory—will be wearing a baseball cap, albeit about 20 years old like those old red California Angels lids.
Mostly for security reasons, all players in the Cuban National League arrive to the ballpark by bus from their hotel about one hour before gametime dressed in their uniforms, including members of the home team, as there are no shower accommodations at most stadiums. The visiting team will often take batting practice at the ballpark in the late morning in preparation for an 8 p.m. contest that day, then return to their hotel for lunch. The home team’s batting practice follows later. Fans are welcome to enjoy batting practice, with all ballparks open to the public at no charge until gametime. Most of the time before the ballgame is devoted to throwing and calisthenics, with occasional hitting off a tee using rubber or plastic balls (because there is a shortage of real baseballs). To save energy costs, all ballpark lights are only turned on come first pitch. While the players are warming up, early-arriving fans mingle inside the ballpark or in front of the main entrance, usually eating and also yapping about—what else?—pelota.
Ballpark food: Want some pig? In Matanzas, in addition to a pig sandwich, fans have a variety of eats to chose from, including ham sandwiches, pizza, popcorn, popsicles and other candy. Thirsty? Drop a peso and you can indulge in a small slush puppy. Beer is not served at any of the ballparks but many fans somehow manage to smuggle in Cuba’s famous Havana Club Rum, of which there seems to be no shortage, past the throngs of national security police. Some ballparks allow fans to bring their own food and there’s no shortage of smoke pilfering the stands, as Cubans love their famed cigars. You also won’t find any ballpark vendors sporting jerseys from Aramark, nor will you find many advertised prices. But not to worry, ballpark food is dirt cheap, from one to five pesos (mere pennies in U.S. currency) and vendors roam the ballpark so you don’t have to get up to stand in any lines.
Seating and tickets: Tickets to most Cuban National League games cost a mere one peso and finding a seat among the devoted flock at a packed house can be described as nothing more than a free-for-all. Cuban ballparks would break multiple North American fire codes. When powerhouses like Industriales and Pinar del Rio visit the smaller provinces like Las Tunas and Guantanamo, nearly everyone in town is at the ballpark, jamming the aisles and the seating areas—even climbing the light standards for a glimpse of the action. We’re talking 30,000 fans cramped into a ballpark designed to hold 20,000.
Assigned seats? Luxury boxes? In Cuba? Please, who needs them? Most seats are first-come, first-served. Need to use the decrepit restroom facilities? Don’t expect to be sitting in that same seat when you return unless your Cuban buddies hold it for you. Cubans are passionate and friendly—if you can’t find a good seat again, they’ll at least offer you some rum. Most seating is bleacher-style on concrete. Almost all ballparks offer at least a few small rows of VIP seating behind home plate for special guests, including foreign visitors, who may be asked to pay a couple of U.S. dollars for the privilege of having a chair-back seat with an arm rest. Many of these prized seats are also occupied by “PENAs”—booster clubs that support the local team with hand-painted banners hovering above the dugout. Holguin Province features the most PENAs in Cuba. Still, the seats are neither wide nor comfortable and you’ll have little legroom, but heck, you’ll be in the front row.
Uniforms and nicknames: Despite limited resources, the players don impressive uniforms and utilize solid equipment, although most practice balls are more brown than white in color. Many Cuban teams have nicknames, but are usually referred to by their provincial title. Cuban uniforms vary in color and most teams have home and away jerseys although no uniforms feature any logos. Instead, if you play for Las Tunas, your lid is stitched with a “T” and “Las Tunas” runs across the front of your jersey. Among the more interesting team nicknames: the Sancti Spiritus Gallos (Roosters) and the Cienfuegos Camaroneros (Shrimpers). Every player on Industriales also has a nickname. All-time stolen base king Enrique Diaz is “The Bullet” while catcher Alejandro Requeira Gonzalez has been called “Kendry!” because fans think he runs like attempted defector and former teammate Kendry Morales.
Some teams feature a player’s last name on the back of his jersey along with the number, while others do not. And Cubans love high numbers on their threads. Country music star Garth Brooks may have donned No. 77 when he spent Spring Training with the Padres in 1999, but No. 91 in Cuba indicates a real player, like a starting pitcher.
Public-address system/music: Cuba’s national anthem is played over a loudspeaker after the home team takes the field. The players, umpires and fans remove their caps and face the center field scoreboard, even though only a few ballparks can afford a Cuban flag. Attend a few games and the anthem’s opening lines become ingrained in your brain, but no one sings the opening line: “Al combate corred, bayameses!” (Run to battle, people of Bayamo!). PA announcers deliver it straight-laced like in North America, only if you’re a ballplayer celebrating a birthday you’ll be wished a happy birthday as Holguin’s Oscar Del Rosario learned on January 16 when his was announced to the crowd.
You’ll hear no commercial announcements, nor witness any advertising for car dealerships along the outfield walls, because, well, there are no corporations in Cuba. There also isn’t any traditional, old-fashioned organ-music either—but there is plenty of Cuban music, especially in the eastern provinces of Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo. In these music capitals of Cuba, there will often be up to an eight-piece band of “congregos,” playing congo and horns, some while enjoying a Cuban cigar at the same time. One instrument may include banging a piece of metal on the inside of a rusted hubcap. In other locales, Cuban music will blast over the public-address system between innings.
Fans and atmosphere: Most games deliver an edge-of-your-seats atmosphere that most Major League fans usually only experience during pennant races and the postseason. Cubans constantly jump on umpires for making suspect calls, waving their hands, stomping their feet and shouting multitudes of adjectives. Occasional mild scuffles may break out in the stands among fans while even some Cuban players banter with the enthusiastic crowds. And all it takes is for the home team to get a runner on first base for fans to start clapping cheers in unison, dancing in the aisles and yelling its team on to success. Bicycle pumps, whistles and kazoos serve as noisemakers. At General Calixto Garcia Stadium in Holguin, a siren will go off when the home team Ducks score a run. This will be preceded by Holguin’s team chant, “Beware the dog, he bites in silence!”
The closest thing to a souvenir you will find is half of a torn ticket stub, and that second half is usually kept by the ticket taker because paper shortages are common throughout the country and that stub can be recycled and used again. There are no merchandise counters featuring lineup cards, scorecards, game programs or team yearbooks. And don’t get any ideas of keeping a foul ball. You’ll be asked to return it because in Cuba, baseballs are too valuable for fans to keep as souvenirs.
Ballparks: Latin American Stadium, home to the Industriales and Metropolitans, was formerly known as Gran Stadium and was renamed in 1971. It remains one of Cuba’s oldest ballparks, having opened in 1946 with 35,000 seats. It remains by far the largest ballpark in all of Latin or Central America and hosted the Orioles during the 1999 exhibition against the Cuban national team.
“The best stadium in Cuba is Latin American Stadium and after that it’s Guillermon Moncada Stadium in Santiago de Cuba and then our stadium,” commented Cirilo Campo Blanco, who serves as the stadium manager for General Calixto Garcia Stadium in Holguin, which opened in 1979.
Despite limited financial resources, Cubans treat their ballparks like shrines, with a mere few featuring somewhat spotty outfield grass. Nelson Fernandez Stadium in San Jose De Lalas in Havana, about a 45-minute drive from the capital, is considered to have the best playing surface in Cuba—so much so that the ballpark serves as the training ground for Cuba’s national team prior to international competitions, including the Olympics. The ballpark is named after a 14-year-old who fought against the U.S. at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
All but three of the league’s 15 ballparks feature electronic scoreboards. They are of fairly simple designs, with only about seven ballparks listing the batting order of both teams, understood by knowing a player’s position and uniform number (last names are not listed). All position abbreviations are the same as in North America, except a catcher is a “receptor” so an “R” appears instead of a “C” on the scoreboard and the designated hitter is known by the abbreviation “BD,” which stands for “bateador designado.” The Island of Youth, Camaguey and Pinar del Rio feature manual scoreboards.
The ballparks also feature no shortage of revolutionary and pro-sports slogans gracing its outfield walls. For example, in Granma province, at Estadio Martines de Barbados in Bayamo, one slogan reads, “El Deporte Conquista de La Revolucion” (“The Sport Conquers the Revolution”). And most are named after revolutionary heroes or victories, such as Estadio Victoria de Giron in Matanzas, which celebrates Cuba’s defeat of the U.S. at the Bay of Pigs, which to Cubans is known as Giron Beach. Jose A. Huelga Stadium in Sancti Spiritus recognizes one of Cuba’s greatest pitchers of all time.
Cubans love to sing and dance, but “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” has yet to fly in Castro’s Cuba. But after five innings, the four-team umpiring crew will be rewarded with complimentary refreshments while the ground crew rechalks the batter’s box.
Post-game routines: Less than three seconds following the conclusion of a ballgame, the scoreboard will have been turned off as will several of the lights to save energy. Post-game interviews are brief and are conducted mainly on the field. Most players will then run several laps around the field before being escorted onto a bus by security that takes them back to their Hotel Deportiva (Sports Hotel) located in Ciudad Deportiva (Sports City), an area of every provincial capital with athletic fields—and its signature National League ballpark.
As for the Cuban fans, they will exit the ballpark—some even by crossing the playing field—carrying with them the same tremendous passion they brought to the yard only hours earlier. In fewer than 24 hours they’ll return, for the Cuban National League is the passion of the people.
Joe Connor is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.