Sunday, August 23, 2009

Our Man in Havana

Sometime in 1993 I went to pick up the EFF mail at the local post office. Among the orders and bills was a flier inviting me to play baseball in Cuba in November. Baseball? In Cuba? Being an adventurous sort, my only question was "how do I sign up?" This was a group trip (individual leisure travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens was - as now - not legally possible). The travel company got the necessary Treasury Dept. licenses and took care of all travel arrangements. All I had to do was pack a glove, a wad of cash (can't use ATM's or U.S. plastic in Cuba) and show up in Miami.

After boarding an unlisted flight on a Bolivian airline at the Miami airport, and only 30-minutes enroute, we landed in another world. Although the Soviet Union had collapsed, and the Soviets' former European satellites were busy transforming themselves, Cuba was having none of it. All the trappings of the communist state were in place, although tourists were pretty much allowed to roam free - their dollars welcome, if not their ideas.

Our group was a curious mix of middle-aged baseball players, lefty activists, and even one token right-wing DC attorney, Arnold, who bore a striking resemblance to Nikita Khruschev (and, who despite our political differences I developed a great fondness for). We were met at the airport by our government-appointed guides, who whisked us away in a Mercedes mini-bus to a park for "orientation".

The first thing one noticed was the complete lack of motor vehicle traffic - in fact our bus often appeared to be the only vehicle on the road. The recent collapse of the Soviet Union (along with the subsidies that kept Cuba's socialist economy afloat) had initiated what the government and our guides euphemistically called the "Special Period". This meant that gasoline, as well as other staples, was unavailable or strictly rationed. The population appeared to be moving around on newly-imported cheap Chinese bicycles, or long flatbed trucks that served as buses.

In 1959, Fidel Castro pitched two innings in an exhibition game before the contest between the Rochester Red Wings and Havana Sugar Kings. Los Barbudos ("Bearded Ones") were a team of revolutionary leaders. Contrary to popular myth, Castro was never seriously scouted by the U.S. major leagues, though he was an exceptional basketball player at the University of Havana.

At our orientation (which by the way, was my introduction to Cuban cigars, a habit only recently given up) it was apparent that our guides had planned a typical boring propaganda schedule of government health clinics and other not-so-thrilling officially-sanctioned activities. We patiently allowed the guides to finish their presentation of our proposed itinerary and then one of us said "we're here to play baseball. If you want to help us, you'll arrange some baseball games". This seemed to take our guides aback momentarily, but they promised to work on it for us.

After checking into the Hotel Plaza (where Babe Ruth lost a bundle to Cuban gamblers and Albert Einstein was feted by Havana's Jewish community), I went for my first walk through the streets of Havana. What was notable was the complete absence of commercialism - no McDonald's, no billboards, in fact hardly any shops or commercial enterprises of any kind. What I did see was baseball - plenty of it. Within five minutes of my walk I came upon a traffic circle where no less than three separate pick-up games were taking place - each involving a different age group. There were very small kids playing in one area, young teenagers in another, and in a third group young adults. After stopping to watch the latter bunch play I was invited to join in. There was no infield or bases to speak of. The rules were explained to me in Spanish and broken English: Pitching was "suave" - soft. The pitcher tossed the ball to the plate, allowing the batter to hit it. I took a turn at bat and then borrowed a beat up glove to play the field. Although there were no umpires, uniforms, or even a common language, this was perhaps the most joyful game of baseball I have ever played.

After a couple of days - itching to play a "real" game of baseball - we finally received word from our guides: Show up at the Plaza de la Revolucion under the giant image of Che Guevara at 10 AM. We did, and as we waited bicycles dangling baseball gloves began to approach from all directions. Our guides had apparently put the word out that the Yanquis were here to play. I honestly don't remember the score or the highlights of the game, but I do recall joyously swapping jerseys with the Cuban players, most of whom seemed about 18 or 19 years old (I was proud to give my EFF 1952 Habana Leones home jersey shown here to one of the kids).

Soon our little group had a regular routine. Each day we would be driven to some officially-sanctioned event in our bus, the bus invariably being greeted by a small group playing "Guantanamera" (God, did I get sick of that song!). Many of these were essentially propaganda events, how Cuba had the freest elections in the world, etc. We would mostly listen politely, but Arnold, our stout, short and bald right-wing lawyer would get right in the face of the Cuban leading the discussion and say "that's a bunch of bullshit!". After a few seconds of edgy silence, usually someone would bring out the rum, and then the discussion invariably became more animated, but always friendly. These encounters were interrupted by ballgames every couple of days. We seemed to never run out of cigars or rum. Not a bad way to travel.

The common language we had with the Cubans was baseball - and it was a language they spoke very well. I kept noticing a group of men in Parque Central near our hotel who would gather every evening and have animated discussions and arguments. I finally could no longer contain my curiosity and waded into the crowd. It turns out these men were arguing about the previous night's televised game, acting out plays from the night before in rich pantomime. Another image I remember is wandering into a rundown apartment complex and seeing a little boy who could have not been older than three or four swinging a stick in lieu of a bat (see photo at top). Older men would come up to me unbidden and recite major league statistics from the 1950s (one odd thing about the embargo is an awareness of U.S. popular culture by older people that seems to cut off around 1960). We have the equipment, stadiums, and money, but Cuba has the passion for the sport that we have lost. Kids don't play sandlot ball in our country anymore, and grown men certainly do not gather in parks and bars just to talk baseball.

Manager Napoleon Reyes looks less than thrilled about modeling his hastily-made Jersey City Jerseys shirt, after the Sugar Kings were transferred out of Havana in the middle of the 1960 season under pressure from the U.S. State Department.

Cuba once had a thriving professional league that played in the winter, as well as a Havana franchise in the U.S. minor leagues (the Havana Cubans - later Sugar Kings). When Fidel Castro decided to throw his lot in with the Communist bloc, it spelled the end of professional baseball in Cuba. The decades-old Cuban League was finished (an amateur system was put in its place) and the Sugar Kings of the International League were pulled out of Havana and transferred to Jersey City in the middle of the 1960 season, as tensions between the U.S. and Cuban governments mounted.

When the Havana franchise was promoted to AAA classification their slogan became "Un paso mas y llegamos!" ("One more step and we arrive.") Maybe some day, they will take that final step and there will be a Havana entry in the major leagues.

About this flannel: The 1947 Cubans won their second of five consecutive Florida International League pennants. Cubans uniforms used both Spanish ("Cubanos") and English versions of the team and city name at different times. The 1947 home jersey has the Cuban flag shield on the left sleeve and "Havana Cubans" in sewn felt. Our Flannel Of The Month is available now for a special price of just $99.

American cars from the 1950s ares still a common site in Havana, kept alive by the ingenuity of Cuban mechanics, who often machine their own parts.