Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Return to Havana

Despite the bitterness and division that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959, there was still one thing that united all Cubans - baseball. In fact, one of Castro's pledges on assuming power was that the new Cuban government would underwrite the debts of the Havana Sugar Kings, the island's entry in the AAA International League (this before he discovered his identity as anti-free enterprise Marxist).

Events soon overtook Castro's good intentions however. On July 26, 1959 celebratory gunfire in or around Havana's Gran Stadium injured Sugar Kings shortstop Leo Cardenas and Rochester Red Wings coach Frank Verdi. The Red Wings left Havana immediately. The 1959 Little World Series between Havana and Minneapolis was a travesty, with bearded armed rebel soldiers in the stands and on the field, and an obviously intimidated Millers team (which included a young Carl Yastrzemski) feeling lucky just to escape Cuba with their lives. On July 8, 1960 Castro nationalized all foreign-owned businesses, and the Sugar Kings were pulled out of Havana by Commissioner Ford Frick and hastily transferred to Jersey City. Then the trade embargo took hold, and for the next four decades, no professional U.S. baseball team would visit Cuba.

Fidel Castro poses with nervous members of the Minneapolis Millers during the 1959 Little World Series in Havana.

Fast forward to 1999. After extensive negotiations between Major League Baseball and the Cuban government, and with the acquiescence of the State Department, who could have quashed the event, it was announced that the Baltimore Orioles would travel to Havana to play an exhibition game against a hastily-assembled team of Cuban all-stars on March 28th. This is something I had to witness, but with the travel ban very much still on, how?

I wrote previously (August 2009) about my trip to Cuba in 1993 as part of a group of baseball-playing (if aging) Americans. That trip had been organized by a group who had obtained all necessary licenses for travel to Cuba, so all I had to do was pay and show up. Six years later was quite a different story. My efforts to attach myself to one of the baseball or media groups licensed to travel with the Orioles game came to naught. It was also a darker, tenser time in my life. Business was extremely stressful and my marriage was unraveling. Still, I just had to go.

In the end I opted to go under the radar - that is illegally - purchasing a seat on a Canadian charter flight from Vancouver bound for the beaches of Varadero, about two hours east of Havana. My inquiries had shown that it was possible to ask the Cuban immigration officials to stamp one's visa (a loose piece of paper) rather than your passport, thereby not leaving any evidence of your trip when you returned home. This was a bit more serious than it sounds. Because of the trade embargo, one cannot use U.S. credit cards or ATM machines in Cuba, nor can you depend on the U.S. Interest Section (there is no embassy) for help if you get into trouble, as you are not supposed to be there in the first place. I booked and pre-paid for my hotel with a Canadian travel agency, at least assuring (I hoped) that my lodging would be ready when I got there after a long day of travel and that I would not have to carry quite so much cash with me into the country.

My arrival into Havana could not have been more different from 1993. Getting there after dark during one of the city's regular blackouts was unnerving enough, but it was quite unexpected when the desk clerk at the Hotel Plaza (the same place I had stayed in '93) told me the hotel was full and refused to even look at the "confirmed reservation", which I had thoughtfully produced for his inspection. His advise was that I should walk around Havana and find another hotel. The total lack of streetlights makes this part of Havana seem somewhat sinister, and after trying to locate a hotel in these circumstances proved unproductive, I returned to the Plaza and in my best Spanish summoned all the indignation I could and demanded a room. One was magically found for me on the second floor (this despite the hotel being "full").

The next challenge was actually procuring a ticket to the game. All the Cubans I spoke with were aware of the game, but no one seemed to know how to get a ticket. Cuba is a closed society with only official media allowed, so (as in the old Soviet Union) rumor and speculation fill the vacuum where reliable information normally would be. Whole days were literally spent (and wasted) trying to find an elusive ticket. The Americans I encountered who were there to cover the game for the media treated me like I had the plague as soon as they found out I was there "unofficially". No help there. The Cubans were all very interested in helping me, just no one knew how. I even ran into Mets shortstop Ray Ordonez' uncle outside the ballpark and he tried and failed to get me in. I soon learned that no tickets at all were being sold, and that passes to the game were only being passed out to selected loyal citizens at their workplaces.

There was also the matter of security. This event was a very big deal for the Cuban government, and they were not taking any chances. I learned that a five-ring perimeter of security would be formed around Estadio Latinamericano (formerly Gran Stadium) on game day. Not only did I not have a ticket, it appeared unlikely I would even get within blocks of the ballpark. It was looking like I came all this way, and took all this risk, for nothing. (Well, not quite nothing. The city has certain charms, and I kept myself busy partaking of Cuban rum, tobacco and other temptations that Havana has to offer).

Eventually when game time came I decided I had to try to get in. I hitched a ride in a motorcycle sidecar (in itself a great adventure) and rode toward the stadium. The motorcyclist took me as far as he dared, for there were indeed men in military dress everywhere. I still am not sure I had a definite plan in mind at this point. Fortunately, as in many dictatorships I have traveled in, security was ample, but not necessarily very efficient. I found a gap down one of the side streets, and ambled toward the park, keeping a careful eye behind me to make sure I wasn't being followed (don't try this yourself, kids!) Not only did I remain unmolested, but I saw a young man standing by himself nonchalantly holding a piece of paper that turned out to be a coveted pass to the game. After a five dollar bill changed hands, I was in! (There would be one more scare when the security officer who examined the passes sized me up and looked momentarily confused, but he waved me in).

Once inside the stadium I could hardly contain my excitement. The atmosphere was electric, with Cuban flags being waved everywhere in an expression of nationalistic pride. Almost all of Cuba's best players were on hand to face Los Orioles. There were no rock videos or scoreboard antics. Treats seemed to be limited to bottles of Mexican Coke and ice in brown paper cones. This was pure baseball, and I was in one of the most ecstatic and knowledgeable baseball crowds in the world.

The fans around me were obviously curious about my presence (all the "official" Americans were seated in the same section near home plate), and gave me a good-natured ribbing about the Americans' chances. Suddenly there was an announcement and every single patron around me stood up immediately and became absolutely rigid with attention. Fidel Castro, in his famous olive fatigues, strode across the field and went to greet the Oriole players. After then talking with the Cuban team he took a seat behind home plate between Commissioner Bud Selig and Orioles owner Peter Angeles, as the Cuban national anthem was played.

Castro greets Oriole manager Ray Miller.

I will never forget what happened next. Over the ancient public address system I heard the scratchy sound of a needle being dropped in a groove on a very well-played phonograph record. Next came the sounds of the Star Spangled Banner. I am not normally given over to displays of patriotic emotion, but as this happened it occurred to me that this was the first time our national anthem had been played in this ballpark since July 1961, and that this was likely the exact same record that was last played then. I was literally moved to tears.

Oh, the game itself. It could not have been any better. A 3-2 Oriole win in the 11th inning in a game that featured great pitching, stellar fielding and clutch hitting. To put this result in perspective: You had the Orioles, a team in the top echelon of U.S. professional baseball and an $80 million payroll barely beating a squad of hastily-assembled players from a poor country who had just come together the week before, and whose average pay was $10 a month (Cuba would go on to rout the Orioles in their re-match later that year in Baltimore).

It was assumed at the time that this would be the beginning of the end of the freeze between the two countries (at least in the baseball sense) and that games like this would soon be routine, but it was not to be. Eleven years later, no U.S. major league team has returned to Cuba. A different Castro is now president, but the other one lingers on, still not ready to relinquish the stage he has commanded for a half-century. Cuba still produces some of the best baseball players on the planet, and maybe, just maybe, that old phonograph record of the Star Spangled Banner is in some office in Havana's ballpark, waiting for next time.

Our Flannel of The Month is Fidel Castro's (#19) jersey from Los Barbudos ("the Bearded Ones"), the Cuban leader's barnstorming team. Although Castro was not known for his baseball prowess, he managed two strikeouts in two innings of work in an exhibition game against a Cuban police team. No doubt friendly umpiring was a factor. Next month's FOTM post will come to you from Laos!