BY LAWRENCE ROCCA | Star-Ledger
HAVANA, Cuba—Tucked into one end of this city’s leafy Parque Central, across the street from the grand dome of the Capitolio, and surrounded by elegant hotels that have been restored and built anew, sits La Esquina Caliente, quite probably the only spot like it in the world.
A public place reserved for serious baseball fans with serious debating skills, men have come to The Hot Corner for decades to engage in an activity called La Pena from sunup to sundown.
The debaters range in age from early 20s to late 60s, and aside from a quick tongue and a loud voice—if vocal chord steroids existed, these guys would be the suspected leading users—no special credential is required for admission.
But if you want to join in, you need to come prepared, and you better not have thin skin.
Participants stand on their feet, gathered in shaded, tight circles of 10 to 20, and argue so loudly, and gesticulate so wildly, as to appear on the verge of a fistfight. That almost never happens here, despite nose-to-nose shouting matches that seem to happen on an hourly basis. The honor lies in prevailing by one’s baseball knowledge, not by force of muscle.
Occasionally, the topic of the conversation is politics or other sports. A visit last month found an animated group of men discussing the potential U.S. attack on Iraq, which they all seemed to oppose.
But just a few feet down, another tight circle gazed at a book with almost religious reverence. It was a copy of the Hall of Fame register, a 1997 edition, still in perfect condition.
The owner of the book proudly declared that, “Eddie Murray and Gary Carter are going in this year,” then happily recited the five other induction classes since his copy was published.
It was a perfect display of the oral baseball tradition that flourishes in Cuba, which is necessary if fans there are to get information on the big leagues.
The state-controlled news agencies don’t report on the major leagues. The country’s two TV channels don’t broadcast it; it’s available on cable, but only in Fidel Castro’s home and the tourist hotels, which Cubans are barred from. And the vast majority of Cubans does not have the means to get on the worldwide web.
One man had a photocopied printout of an Internet story about Jose Contreras’ first spring training start for the Yankees, but the latest estimates are that only 120,000 of the nation’s 11.2 million people are Internet users.
The poor information flow prevents fans from following the big leagues in real time—most of the men there were earlier this month were surprised to hear that Orlando Hernandez had been traded—but the knowledge of the American game is nonetheless impressive.
And when a man identifies himself as an American baseball writer from the New York area, the questions and comments come in a steady barrage.
“Could the United States field a dream team of big-leaguers that would pass Olympics drug testing?”
“Why doesn’t Jorge Toca play more?”
“I hope the American Yankees decide to send their team here so they can play Industriales, the Cuban Yankees, in a real World Series.”
While it’s unclear how that prospect would appeal to George Steinbrenner, another man here in this communist country, where ballplayers make less than $15 a month, asks a question the mighty capitalist would likely enjoy.
“Why does Steinbrenner pay so much money to Derek Jeter?”
What, the man is asked, does he mean?
“I mean he’s not that good,” the man says, while others nod around. “That’s too much money.”