In Cuba, baseball stirs the national soul

Alejandro Pedro Silva Almeida, 11, practices batting as his friend Rainel Estrada, 11, runs by in the background at Palmero del Junco Stadium in Matanzas, Cuba. The stadium was the site of the first official baseball game in Cuba on December 27, 1874. Now it is used as a park for children.
Alejandro Pedro Silva Almeida, 11, practices batting as his friend Rainel Estrada, 11, runs by in the background at Palmero del Junco Stadium in Matanzas, Cuba. The stadium was the site of the first official baseball game in Cuba on December 27, 1874. Now it is used as a park for children. (Nanine Hartzenbusch, Baltimore Sun)

HAVANA -- Today, one of the longest waits in a country of waiting finally ends -- American professional baseball returns in the form of the Baltimore Orioles.

"It will be the best play of baseball in 40 years. It is something that we have dreamed of for 40 years," said Michel Enriques, 20, a college student and, like many here, a soul-deep fan of the sport that both unites and separates his country and the one 90 miles to the north. "To get a good seat, I will be there at 8 a.m."

At noon today at Estadio Latinoamericano, the Orioles will play a Cuban team in the first such matchup since before 1959, when Fidel Castro swept into power and the two countries' relationship quickly deteriorated into a stubborn cold war marked by invasion, nuclear threat and trade embargoes.

But surely no embargo would ever succeed against the one American import that Cubans have made their own. We call it baseball. They call it pelota -- the Spanish word for ball.

The difference goes beyond name, though. Here, the sport is obsessively played and emotionally followed. It is like some sort of spectator opera, high-pitched and deeply experienced.

On narrow streets and empty fields, children play every spare moment, sometimes barefoot, tossing shared gloves back and forth between innings, using any stick, tree branch or plank of wood as a bat and playing until parents,teachers or darkness forces a halt.

Older fans follow the sport both at home and in the United States with singular inventiveness -- foreign radio stations, travelers and sheer rumor seem to serve as the primary sources -- somehow getting news denied them by the state-controlled media, which barely acknowledge the existence of the U.S. major leagues.

"Last March, I had just landed in the [Havana] airport, on the day Orlando Hernandez signed with the Yankees," said Milton Jamail, a University of Texas professor working on a book on Cuban baseball, referring to the defector known affectionately as El Duque. "A friend asked me if I knew what he signed for -- I didn't -- but a man walking by says, `6.6, four.' "

How the passer-by already knew the exact terms of El Duque's contract -- $6.6 million over four years -- perhaps has something to do with the Esquina Caliente, or Hot Corner, a raucous daily gathering in Parque Central in old Havana.

Here, under the stony gaze of a statue of Jose Marti, the martyred Cuban independence leader, fans loudly and vehemently talk baseball. "Talk," though, is a pallid word for the emotions erupting from the men standing in a tight knot that occasionally breaks off into splinter arguments. "Bleed," is closer to it.

"We are very passionate about baseball," said Alfredo Perez, 38, an economist who dropped by recently for an infusion of news and opinions. "It is a Cuban characteristic."

"If you want to know something about baseball, you come here," said Dusmaya Torres, 26, a computer programmer. "I love baseball. I love discussing baseball. It's our national sport."

It's as if the Hot Corner and its subject matter substitute for the lack of open debate about more serious matters of Cuban life -- all that intensity is instead focused on baseball. The Hot Corner is talk radio in a country without free airwaves, a people's McLaughlin Group where such bald political dissent is unheard of.

The corner also serves as a way station for rumors -- which player is injured, who may be on his way out, even where the all-star team that will play the Orioles has been working out. (A nearby town named San Jose, and, indeed, the players were there earlier this week, practicing in the uniforms of their various teams as security personnel kept away the small crowd that tried to get an advance look at the tightly guarded team.)

The real consuming passion of baseball fans, though, is Cuba's own national championship series. Last week, Estadio Latinoamericano fairly pulsated with the final round of playoffs and the beginning of the championships, the fans as involved in the action as the players themselves.

For anyone accustomed to the discreet responses of the typical Camden Yards crowd, the din was deafening, the spectacle more like a circus. Three young Lycra-clad women danced atop one dugout to the rhythm of the drums and clanking metal that other fans brought.

Even the players in the dugouts couldn't stay seated -- soon after the first pitch, they spent most of the game standing and cheering on their teammates.

"We have never gotten this far before in the playoffs," said Eliso Castillo Campos, 51, who had followed his team from Isla de la Juventud, off the southwest coast of the main island of Cuba. He and his fellow fans made the hours-long journey by boat and then bus. (La Isla, as the team is affectionately called, was eliminated.)

The devotion Cubans lavish on baseball, one expert believes, is tied in with the nation's history.
"Baseball became part of the Cuban culture as it was emerging in the 1870s after the first wave of independence. Baseball was there at the birth of the nation," said Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, a Yale professor who wrote the recently published book, "The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball" (Oxford University Press).

Baseball became popular in Cuba in the late 19th century as prosperous sugar mill businessmen began sending their sons to the United States for college and they brought the sport back home, Gonzalez Echevarria writes.

At this time, Cubans would also fight two wars of independence from Spain, and American baseball came to be seen as yet another way to reject the Spaniards by turning away from their chosen, and savage, sport -- bullfighting -- for this newer and more genteel game.

The first games were rather cultured events -- often, the game would be followed by dinner and dancing in the gazebos built as part of the baseball field, and then more socializing and baseball chatter at a chic cafe, Gonzalez Echevarria writes.

With every change in Cuban life, baseball changed along with it.

Baseball was played on various levels -- sugar mill towns and cigar factories would form teams that competed against one another, and Cuba had an active professional baseball league until it was swept out with other private industries as part of Fidel Castro's revolution of 1959. As a result, the once free flow of players across the Straits of Florida stopped, but for the occasional defector.

Cubans, though, remain bilingual in baseball. The passion for pelota doesn't rule out a fondness for baseball.

Today's Orioles game brings the two together, at long last. Cuban officials, though, have decided that tickets will be handed out by invitation only, meaning the average fan can't just walk in. It will be televised, however, and surely every last ball and strike will find its way through the grapevine.

Although the state-run press reported little about the game until Friday, the pre-event chatter began long ago.

The reach of baseball is so great in this country that even Gregorio Fuentes, the now 101-year-old fishing captain who served as the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," has an opinion. Fuentes, who lives in the seaside town of Cojmar, is the real-life model for Santiago, the fisherman who gets through an epic battle with a giant marlin by thinking about the great DiMaggio playing through a bone spur.

Fuentes, though, has a word of warning to the Americans who challenge the Cubans.

"They will find it hard to win against Cuba," he said. "There are just a few in the world like the Cubans."

Others are less certain. There is angst over the American wood bats vs. the Cuban aluminum bats; there is the fear that the Orioles have been training a long time for this game, while the Cubans, culled from a number of different clubs, may not jell in time as a team.

In the meantime, there is pelota to be played.

This particular field is a narrow courtyard between two crumbling buildings on the Malecon, the serpentine promenade that runs along the Havana seashore. The ball is a wad of tape, the bat an impossibly skinny stick.

And yet, the teen-age boys at play chase every fly ball at full speed, even if it takes them over broken bottles and festering garbage. Every close call is disputed and every hit run out. Every RBI in this pickup game is dutifully recorded in a notebook by Yoaris Quintana, 17.

Asked the names of the teams, he shyly smiled and said, "Industriales and Pinar del Rio," two popular Cuban teams.

But in his score book the team names he has actually written down are CHI and CLE, the scoreboard abbreviations for the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians. The boys start talking baseball as played in America.

"Jim Thome, I like his style," one player piped up, mimicking the Cleveland player's batting stance. "Brady Anderson, 50 home runs," another boy announces with a punch in the air, a couple of seasons late with that particular statistic.

As a group of Cuban schoolchildren recently began chanting when they met the American kids who had come as part of the Orioles visit: "Play ball!"