Let me begin by acknowledging my intense infatuation with the sport of baseball, a love that developed as a youngster and blossomed further as I came to fully understand the strategies employed and the many nuances of meaning and expression attached to this game. One has to have maintained the little boy of the past within his being to totally appreciate the romance associated with such affection, a feat not easily maintained in this Canada of ours wherein hockey is king and other athletic pastimes are a distant second. Then, too, there is the cultural shift that now has adults organizing leagues and teams and has taken the fun away from the sandlot gatherings of kids who once played scrub, picked their own teams, did their own umpiring and hardly ever kept score. Fun was the name of the game. Professional baseball players once had to have off-season jobs to support themselves year round but, in today’s society, sport has become a business and outlandish multi-million dollar contracts are the norm and have turned many present and would-be fans away in disgust at the impropriety in the ranking of remuneration.
One will find no such discrepancies present within “el sistema de béisbol Cubano” which is a loose translation meaning today’s “Cuban baseball system”. Prior to the revolution of the 1950’s, the Havana Sugar Kings flourished as a professional Triple A affiliate within the International League. Cuban baseball players were allowed to travel to all parts of the world to ply their trade. As a young lad, I had the immense pleasure of indenturing as a bat boy for a team of semi-pro Cuban players who toured western Canada and consistently finished in the money in the numerous prize money tournaments which were in vogue during that era. I quickly learned, first hand, that Cubans were friendly people and intensely passionate about “pelota”, the name they assign to baseball. After 1959, however, when the revolutionaries came to power in Cuba, a state-run amateur program was instituted, foreigners were not permitted to participate and home grown talent was not allowed to play elsewhere. But, one thing has remained solidly consistent, that being the deep passion that Cuba has for baseball. They proudly proclaim it as their “national sport” and the numerous international amateur and Olympic champions which have come from their leagues attest to their declaration as being the very best or close to the very best. Their teams once piled up an unbelievable 150 straight victories in official international competition over a 10 year time frame (1987-96). Their success at last season’s inaugural World Baseball Classic brought them particular glee in that their amateurs were able to, not only hold their own, but to also beat most of the best professionals from the rest of the world. This is an impoverished country, after all, and the elite baseball players here draw their government salaries, like all other Cuban nationals, from mandatory day jobs for which they earn something in the equivalency of $20-25 Canadian per month. They are consistently inundated with the riches that await them in the professional North American leagues should they decide to jump ship and claim political asylum once within the boundaries of the numerous countries that their All-Star (Olympic) team visits each season while representing Cuba at the prestigious international championship tournaments. There have been a few that have succumbed, the most famous being pitchers Jose Contreras of the Chicago White Sox and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez currently on the roster of the New York Mets. Almost all Cuban players, however, choose to stay with their national team for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they will never be allowed to reside again in Cuba. Family members are generally not allowed to leave the country and join them and are watched closely by government authorities. Yet, there are many who espouse the virtues of the socialist system and remain content with the status quo.
Their 16 team National League began play during the first week in December 2006 and will end in April 2007 with a 3 round set of playoffs. The 90 game schedule that each team plays is based upon the most favorable weather conditions of the Cuban winter months. Cuba is divided into 14 provinces and each province fields one team of their best players. Two teams also play out of the capital (and most populated) city, Havana. One of these Havana based teams, the feared “Los Leones de Industriales”, clad in blue and simply known as the “Industriales”, lay claim to 10 championships including that of last season and are widely acknowledged as being the Cuban League equivalent of the New York Yankees. The 2006-2007 season marks the 46th for this league of Cuba’s elite players. Geography is the sole basis of team designation. Each province’s best players can only play for that team as there are no trades and no free agent signings.
With some preconceived expectations, I eagerly signed up as part of a bus tour that was privileged to attend our very first Cubana béisbol game on Friday evening, January 19, 2007 at “Stadia Generalisimo Calixto Garcia” in Holguin City, the capital of Holguin province. Typical of most ballpark venues in this country, names that are assigned to such are those of revolutionary heroes. I almost had to pinch myself to realize that I was sitting outdoors in a t-shirt and sandles in the middle of January and, not only that, but at night. The parking lot was void of motorized vehicles except for the buses transporting tourists as well as one for each of the teams. Apparently, they dress and shower at a hotel. Local fans in Holguin primarily walked or cycled to the ballpark. There were no commercials on the fences or outfield walls and the only signs that appeared were slogans proclaiming the virtues of the revolution. Admission price was but 1 Cuban convertible peso (approximately $1.25 Canadian), a mere pittance considering the entertainment provided and the skill level of the players. Freshly roasted peanuts, still hot in long cone-shaped paper containers (re-used from newspapers or whatever else was available) sold for 5 centavos (6 cents Canadian). As foreign visitors, we were treated to VIP seats in what they refer to as their PENA section. These were located in the first three rows between home plate and the dugouts and provided an excellent line-of-sight to the action on the diamond. The playing field was elegantly manicured but, despite the VIP designation, the seats were anything but comfortable. Washroom facilities were as decrepit as I have ever witnessed and one tended to hold back for as long as possible without having to make a return visit. Police and military personnel were everywhere but that did not deter the animated Cuban fans from shouting and expressing their feelings toward the opposing team and the disputed umpire calls. Whatever vocal expression these affectionate Cuban fans held back regarding their political and economic system for fear of reprisal, they freely released in other ways within the safety of the ballpark milieu. They rarely were silent like North American fans and fully utilized the freedom of expression allowed citizens at such an outlet. No line-up programs, no scorecards nor team yearbooks are available and it is even difficult to retain your ticket stub as a souvenir since ticket takers tend to keep both halves. In spite of this only being a regularly scheduled league game, the atmosphere was electric and the exuberance of the Cuban fans was really something to witness. One would have thought that this was a sudden death playoff game with all this on-the-edge-of-your-seat enthusiasm and crowd reaction. Clapping cheers, whistle and percussion noise were abound. There are no commercial messages between innings but Cuban music blasts over the speakers while the defensive team takes the field and warms up. At Calixto Garcia Stadium, a roaming band of musicians continually marches around the walkway perimeter separating the lower level seats from those above. While I was wandering this walkway during the game and shooting photos, enthusiastic Cubano fans were standing in the aisles, loudly cheering the great plays made by both teams and inundating me with shots of Cuban rum which I was expected to down chug-a-lug style. By the end of the shooting session, I had to acknowledge the power of both the fans and the rum that had entered my bloodstream (and I am not normally a rum drinker). These fans were not only full of fervor but they really did understand the intricate strategies used by both teams. When all is said and done, the Cubano style of baseball is primarily fundamental, station-to-station baseball wherein sacrifice bunting, well executed squeeze plays, timely base stealing as well as a hit and run style offense have a more prominent role in manufacturing runs than in playing for the extra base hit. The foul poles in this stadium have thin florescent tubes running vertically end-to-end along the actual fair/foul demarcation. At the end of 5 complete innings, a mini-skirted clad lady walks to home plate with a tray of cold beverages for the 4 umpires to consume. The bat boys for both the home team Holguin Sabuesos (Hounds) and the powerhouse Industriales Blues from Havana were old men, probably veteran ballplayers who still have a great love of the game and the clubhouse life. Each time a run scores, all offensive players leave the dugout and high-five the team mate who has just crossed the plate. Following this game, I left the ballpark with a renewed vigor, reminiscent of my youthful enthusiasm . But this was only a prelude of what was to follow.
Unbeknownst to me at the beginning of my trip to Cuba, each provincial team plays a few of their home games in some of the more rural areas, at small antiquated facilities, in order to give fans there an opportunity to see their team play. Think of it in terms of the Saskatchewan Roughriders scheduling a game in Gopher Muscle or Buggywhip. Such a scenario was presented to me on Sunday afternoon, January 21/2007 when the Holguin squad left their spacious stadium in a city of 350,000 to play a home game at rundown “Estadio Mariana Comacho Romero” in the small town of 1500 inhabitants referred to as Rafael Freyre or Santa Lucia. I was able to taxi to this venue but, as I failed to arrive early, all of the 500 or so dilapidated seats were long gone. Not only that but a perimeter lined litany of spectators standing up to 5 deep in most spots surrounded the entire infield and outfield fences bringing the estimated crowd base to around 5000, a monumental feat considering that this sleepy hollow town itself had only a fraction of the total fan count. Only a few 1950’s vehicles (still miraculously in running condition) were present. The multitude of fans had arrived primarily on foot but also via bicycles, tractors, oxen drawn carts, horse drawn buggies, in the back of 3 ton trucks standing up nose-to-nose like cattle packed in for the slaughter house and on horseback or mule. Cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and chickens freely roamed the area. Fans were literally hanging out of trees - I counted 13 in one tree alone - and on the rooftops of the abandoned buildings and shabby schools in the immediate area. People were hanging off of any and every conceivable thing that improved their line of sight. Rum bottles were freely exposed and the contents consumed without any trepidation of police intervention. However, those who over-indulged and created havoc were involuntarily escorted from the stands and driven to the local constabulary in the old Russian built Ladas used by the police force. Fan reaction, however, was no less enthusiastic than within the confines of Calixto Garcia Stadium. Players from both the Industriales and Holguin teams displayed a high level of skill. This excellence of quality of play in the Cuban National League and its importance to both the individual fan and the collective psyche of Cuban society is inescapable.
As eloquent as I have tried to be with my words, the Cuban passion for baseball is really beyond description. One has to see it to believe it ... not only see it but hear it, smell it, taste it and feel it, and you can absolutely use all five senses in experiencing it. It’s a baseball purist’s delight and brings back fond memories of what baseball in western Canada and most of North America was like 55 - 60 years ago. Even when a group of boys congregate on a street corner to play stickball or gather on a dusty sandlot for a pick-up game, it creates “magic in the air” and passers-by will slow down or stop whatever they’re doing to enjoy the spirit of the moment. What I will always remember about this experience is the incredible passion of the fans, the solid fundamentals and the tremendous skill level displayed by these athletes, the infectious schoolboy zeal of the players who freely banter with the fans and outwardly enjoy the simple games of “playing catch” and “pepper” in stark contrast to the spoiled, can’t-be-bothered-with-the-fans arrogance which is constantly on display in Major League ballparks and, most importantly, what I perceived as the fun that these Cuban players appeared to be having in representing their province and country. After all, isn’t baseball supposed to be a fun game? Only in Cuba you say? Pity!