Cuba Culture

Cuba, where seats cost 12 cents and free agency is unheard of

Posted May 15, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Culture.

By Steve Cummings | Special to The Seattle Times


LINDA KANNER | At a game in Cuba there aren’t any of the mid-inning sideshows found at major-league parks in the United States. There’s only baseball, pure and simple.
Editor’s note: Steve Cummings, a Seattle psychologist, was part of 12 members of the Society for American Baseball Research who recently took a trip to Cuba to soak up the baseball climate there. Here are his impressions.

HAVANA — In many ways, when you first see Havana, it feels like the ‘50s all over again. We arrived at the Stadio LatinoAmericano one night in a cherry red Cadillac convertible taxi. Although there are meters, everyone bargains for fares, so we paid $2 for a ride to the park from the famous Hotel Nacional, a Mafioso hangout until 1959.

El Stadio is the largest ballpark in Cuba, seating about 45,000 fans. On the face of it, the stadium looks like a miniature version of a typical cement bowl built in the United States 30 years ago. But once inside, there are drastic differences.

Just imagine getting box seats at Safeco Field for 12 cents. In Havana, fans have a choice of 1, 2, or 3 peso seats (a peso is worth 4 cents). We got tiny pieces of paper without a seat assignment as we entered.

Most of our group traveled from Vancouver, B.C. — you still can’t travel from the U.S. directly to Cuba because of the embargo — to see six games in six stadiums in one week. As a special-interest group, we were ushered without ceremony to our section behind home plate.

The seats were of worn leather, but the iron grillwork was quite fancy. Potted plants were sprinkled throughout our section. The field was pure green grass, but the foul line and power-alley distances were about 20 feet shorter than the typical American ballpark.

Imagine a ballpark without any souvenirs or snacks sold on the outskirts of the grounds. No food, scorecards or tickets hawked by vendors outside. The fans arrive on foot.

We were surprised to see an electronic scoreboard. The screen flashed the starting lineups and gave the batting average of each player as he came to bat. Nothing else. No close-up photos, statistical breakdowns, or scores of out-of-town games were to be seen. No visual signs exhorting us to make noise, no randomly created boat races disturbed the baseball experience.

Unlike American ballparks, the low, blue walls of Cuban ballparks were completely devoid of commercialization. However, along the foul poles, which were lit, there were painted signs exhorting fans to contribute to social revolution, accompanied by the signature of Fidel Castro.

Pregame activity was full of opportunities for fans to interact with the players. They warmed up along the foul lines after batting and fielding practice, but something was amiss with the ball. It looked like a softball. In fact, it was a larger baseball, somewhat scruffy and discolored from practice. There is a shortage of basic equipment in Cuba, and they do not readily discard barely used equipment as we do routinely.

The players seemed exuberant, enjoying simple games of catch and pepper. We shouted to them in Spanish and got plenty of acknowledgment and photo opportunities. The players like to pose for pictures. Fans do not ask for autographs, though.

Before the game began, we stood up for the Cuban national anthem, but no music came on for one minute. After the moment of silence honoring the recently deceased mother of the Havana catcher, fans stood quietly as the anthem was played, no hands over their hearts. There were no patriotic displays of loyalty such as military marches or flag displays.

The starting pitcher got four warmup pitches and the game began. Strangely enough, the starter continued to warm up in the bullpen between innings.

The uniforms were similar to U.S. major-league jerseys, except they looked somewhat faded from laundering. The dugouts were wooden and reminiscent of minor-league enclaves. There were no batboys. Instead, one of the coaches performed some of those traditional duties, also acting as a clown during the game, to inspire fans and players.

My most haunting memory of Cuban fans was the constant blare of air horns that punctuated nine long innings. One leather-lunged guy blew two horns all night long. You could hear whistles when the horns were silent.

The fans paid close attention to the game, rarely getting up to seek food or restrooms. It was more of a social, festive occasion. No one tried to sneak into the box seats. Not only were Cuban police with guns stationed handily in the prime seats, but there were small metal padlocks that prevented passage from one section to the next.

Instead of our seventh-inning stretch, we were witness to a rolling, rumbling fight between three fans. The most corpulent of the trio almost landed in our seats before he was secured by three policemen and hustled off to a less desirable location.

Several nights later, in Santa Clara, fans began throwing peanuts at the visiting bullpen pitchers while they were warming up. All of a sudden, the entire visiting team raced toward the bleachers in chase of the fans. From our limited translation of the public-address announcer’s warning, we gathered that a forfeit might be in the offing. For a few minutes, the field was empty, so we thought the game was over. With further warnings, though, action resumed as if nothing had occurred.

You might think that these fans were drunken bleacher bums, but they were not. There is no alcohol sold in the ballpark, probably because it is too expensive. Although Cuban beer is decent, it costs about $1. The average Cuban wage-earner makes $20 per month, so imagine spending 5 percent of your paycheck on a single beer.

The Cuban baseball season extends 90 games, beginning in late November, typically, and ending in early April when the heat picks up. There are 16 teams divided into two leagues — one for each province and two for Havana.

The games were the least interesting part of the adventure. The league was bereft of decent starting pitching, but the relief pitchers were rarely used. Apparently, they do not use a pitch count nor are there specialties such as setup men, long relievers and closers. It was basically an offensive league, with marginal defense.

Most likened the quality of play to Class A or AA minor-league ball.

In fairness, the training facilities and equipment are so lacking that whatever talent is developed cannot be fully exploited.

There are sports academies for each province’s high-school players, who are enthusiastic but seldom get to test themselves against competition from other Latin American or international teams.

To really see Cuban baseball, you have to rent a car or take a chartered bus all over the island, which spans approximately 800 miles from east to west. Wherever we went, we experienced nothing but outpourings of genuine welcome. We met the commissioner of baseball, who spoke nonstop for a couple of hours. We met several times after the game with the home team in simple locker rooms. We sat in dugouts. We were allowed on the field before practice. We were also sold game-worn uniforms on the sly for about $40 by some enterprising players, and we gave away lots of equipment and souvenirs.

Perhaps the most unique scene we encountered took place in a city park in Havana. Every day, the “Peña” takes place. It is a boisterous throng of baseball fans who joyously argue about all things baseball. The members pay a small fee each year to join the heated discussions. We were very welcome as Americans, even with our meager Spanish and their marginal English. Everyone wanted to know what we thought of Jose Contreras, demoted by the Yankees after we left.

Cuban fans are intensely interested in the progress of any player in “las liguas majores,” the major leagues. They follow American baseball carefully and were grateful to be given recent editions of baseball magazines.

The ballplayers make the same as everyone else in Cuba. There is no free agency and few trades.

But once the embargo ends, there will be a flood of great Cuban “pelotas” wanting to play in the United States. Baseball is clearly the national pastime in Cuba.

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