Beisbol: A Passionate Pasttime

February 19
Dateline: Un campo de los sueños en Cienfuegos

Baseball, the game that Americans brought to the island in the 1860s, has long been a national obsession in Cuba. We had seen youngsters playing spirited pickup games in streets, alleyways, and lots all over Havana, sometimes using taped balls or makeshift bats. We had witnessed the old-timers, with voices raised and fingers pointed, vigorously arguing the nuances of the game at the famed Esquina Caliente (the hot corner) in Havana’s Parque Central. A love of baseball even reached into the highest offices of Cuban government. Over the years, Fidel Castro has been a very visible supporter of the game. There was even a widely circulated false story that he had once received a tryout as a pitcher for the Washington Senators or the New York Yankees, depending on who was repeating the tale.

When we first met in the Miami Airport, Tom Miller and I talked about the Cuban love of baseball. He said that if he could manage it, he would try to get us tickets to a game. But so far, with our busy schedule, that opportunity had eluded us. All that changed, however, when, as our bus was leaving Cienfuegos, we came across 2 teams of what looked to be high school aged kids engaged in a spirited game. Miller convinced the bus driver to stop and most of us on the bus got off to get a closer look.

The stand-less field was lined with cheering fans. From them, I found out the game was between the best 14-16 youth team in Cienfuegos and an opponent from a poor, rural countryside town. There was a decided inequality between the two squads. The Cienfuegos team was wearing sharp green and gold uniforms. Their manager and coaches wore matching uniforms. The batting area outside their dugout was lined with shiny metal bats. Their opponents provided quite a contrast. They weren’t wearing uniforms. None of them had matching caps. Some wore cleats, but most wore sneakers.

The score mirrored the look of the two teams. Cienfuegos had established a comfortable lead and was continuing to batter their opponents’ pitchers. During yet another pitching change, I watched as a Cienfuegos coach threw his arm around the next batter and for several minutes talked patiently to him about how to handle his impending turn at the plate. Even though my Spanish is limited, I was able to understand that the young hitter was receiving some instrucción excelente.

As the game progressed, the excited fans cheered wildly, especially as an outfielder sidestepped a fallen coconut to make a running catch outside the foul lines.  One of my fellow travelers, Helen, tapped me on the shoulder. “I guess some things about sports are the same all over the world,” she said, as we watched a mother bring her son a bottle of water as he stood near the on-deck circle.

Helen was on a special mission. She had brought a bag full of yellow tennis balls with her. Whenever she would find a group of youngsters playing street ball, she would toss them a bright tennis ball to replace the ragged one they were playing with. I had accompanied her on some of her giveaways and had been warmed by the grateful smiles from the beaming recipients. I’m sure Helen and I would have stayed much longer. The weather was perfect. The fans were animated. The game was interesting.

But we saw Hilary motioning  us back toward the bus. We needed to get on our way to Bahia de Cochinos, or, as we call it in America, the Bay of Pigs. There was more than baseball in Cuba; there were famous battles sites, too. And we wanted to see at much as we  could in the short time we had left.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order

The International Pool Champions of Cienfuegos

February 19
Dateline: Una Mesa de Billar Delapidated en un Hotel Ruso

Tonight it was another example of the Cuban concept we were learning all too well: plan one thing, be forced  to substitute another. We were scheduled to spend time talking to members of a local Communist Committee. Instead, plans were switched. We would now be viewing a performance by youngsters from a community collective.

At first, I was disappointed. I had been looking forward to serious discussions about serious Cuban issues. But as soon as I saw how excited the youngsters were to see Americans and perform for us, my disappointment faded.

Now, as the grandfather of a 4-year-old, I was used to child performances. But I couldn’t help but be amazed by the professionalism of these young entertainers. It was hard to believe that some were as young as my granddaughter, Audrey. This must be what happens when the people of a country value art and music and dance more than money.

As a finale, we joined the young performers, their parents, and their teachers for a person-to-person outreach through dance. I was pleased to have a chance to show off my salsa skills and even more pleased to report that no children, mothers, or animals were harmed by that performance.

Back at the hotel, Judy, our adopted-for-this-trip daughter Traci, Hilary, and I decided to keep our people-to-people mission going. Since there is no private business property as such in Cuba, local residents can avail themselves of services offered at local hotels. We found a group of residents engaged in some friendly games of pool as their wives, girlfriends, and other family members watched appreciatively.

Hilary and I, both willing to show off some of the skills we had picked up from our misspent youth, challenged the locals to 8-ball doubles. Hilary, in flawless Spanish, joked that we would be playing for the International Pool Doubles Championship of Cienfuegos. The Cuban pool players and their family members smiled.

Now some words about the pool table we would be playing on. Nowhere on the island had I found an item that  better captured what happens when a country suffers a 50-year trade embargo. The table was warped. The felt cushions were as dead as the bodies in Colon Cemetario. The cue ball had a huge chunk missing, which made it roll crazily around the table. The sticks had no tips. The nearest cue chalk was 90 miles away in Miami.

The local residents selected the 2 players who would represent them. As I chalked my broken-tipped cue with imaginary chalk, the older player told Hilary that we could have the break. I broke (if that is what you call it when a damaged cue ball is struck by a tipless cue stick) and the game was on. We complimented each other on good shots. “Bueno, muy bueno,” our Spanish opponents and their supporters would shout whenever Hilary or I sunk a ball.  At one point, one of our Cuban opponents sunk 2 balls in a row. “Usted debe ser un jintero de bolas,” I said, trying to impress the locals with my command of their language. Hilary looked horrified. 

“What did you say?” she asked, her voice rising an accusatory octave.

“I said he must be a pool hustler,” I replied.

“No you didn’t. You said what would translate here as ‘you are a pimp of the balls,'” she responded. “How about if you just drop the Spanish before you insult the entire country? OK?”

So I continued to play, albeit much more quietly. After our opponents missed, I found myself with an easy shot on the 8 ball. Of course, with the condition of the cue ball, anything could happen. What happened was that the ball dropped right into the corner pocket. We had won.

“Uno mas, uno mas,” our opponents both chimed in. This time they broke. First they were ahead. Then we came back. Finally, once again, it was just me and the 8 ball. And, once again, it somehow found its wobbly way to the corner pocket. Our opponents held out their hands for congratulations. They agreed to pose for pictures. They introduced us to their wives and family members. Just as I was preparing to break my vow to Hilary and offer these charming people some pool tips in Spanish, my teammate, apparently sensing the potential for disaster, tugged at my arm and said in perfect Spanish: “Thank you for your hospitality. Thank you for letting us play. We love your country and its people, but we must go now. Adios.”

On the way to elevators, Hilary turned to me. “It’s a good thing you play pool better than you speak Spanish. Of course, considering how badly you speak Spanish, I guess you could basically do anything better. Tomorrow we are going to the site of the Bay of Pigs. There has already been one big battle there. Promise me you won’t speak any of your Spanish there and start another one,” she said.

I nodded my head in agreement. But I could always change my mind. After all, I was the new pool king of Cienfuegos. 

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order

Hearing the Angels Sing

February 19
Dateline: La Escuela de Cienfuegos

Our group headed to the seaside resort town of Cienfuegos, where we would spend about three hours on our own. Being a retired urban educator who is still doing educational consulting work in Washington, D. C., I wanted to focus on schools and school children. We asked and found directions to a school that was in walking distance.

Given the signs of hard life you encounter in Cuba, there is one educational statistic that stands out as a  seeming impossibility. But it has been documented. According to a 2009 World Bank study published in 2010, an astounding 99.83 of Cubans over the age of 15 are literate, a rate which puts the United States to shame.

Reading has long been a priority in Cuba. When Fidel Castro first took control in 1959, he ordered a literacy campaign for the entire island. At the time of the effort, the literacy rate in Cuba was 60%. Castro sent  “literacy brigades” out into the cities and countryside to construct schools, train new educators, and teach the predominately illiterate Guajiros (peasants) to read and write. In a matter of a few years, the literacy rate rose to 96%.

Also, quite interesting for a government supposedly ruled by an anti-democratic dictator, schooling and education, all of which are free to Cuban citizens of any age, became a priority, In 1956, only about 56% of school-age children attended school. Today, that rate is 100%.

So what did we find in our brief, informal school visits? Most of the students wear simple uniforms. They smile a whole lot. The teachers act as if they love their jobs and treat the students with kindness, love and respect. The students smile while doing their work, most of which involves producing something creative no matter what the subject. They seem grateful for a chance at an education and like to show off what they have learned. I made a mental note: Cuba appears to have much to offer the United States in the field of education, especially with reading. I vowed to begin researching that idea as soon as I returned home.

Later in the afternoon, we rejoined our group for a vocal concert by the Chorus of Cienfuegos performed in an acoustically perfect town hall building. To say the concert was impactful would be a major understatement. After the first  two numbers, I glanced around and every single female in our group was crying. Most of the men, myself included, were also wiping a tear from their eyes.

At the end of the magnificent  performance,  Judy had the best summation: “It really did sound like angels singing.”

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order

The U.S. and Cuba: What Comes Next?

February 18
Dateline: A Hotel Veranda in Cienfuegos

This morning after breakfast we all gathered on the veranda of our hotel to hear Tom Miller deliver a talk entitled U.S./Cuba Relations: Hope for the Future? As Tom talked, we sipped strong Cuba coffee and were gently buffeted by the warm morning breeze.

Cuba’s ties with United States go back to the time of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. Jefferson, ever the expansionist, coveted the island and wanted it to become part of America.

In the 1860’s, American sailors brought the new game of besibol to the island, where it immediately became overwhelmingly popular. Baseball came to represent the freedom of America, while bullfighting stood for the imperialism of Spain. Spain acted immediately and banned Cubans from playing the American game.

In 1895, led by the passionate rhetoric of Cuban’s national hero of liberation Jose Marti, the Cuban people were able to establish their independence from Spain. Marti had deep American roots, having spent more than 15 years living in New York City. His martyrdom was assured when he was killed in his first battle. “He was a much better intellectual than he was a soldier,” Miller said.

As most students of American history know, the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor (at the time, Spanish forces were believed to have blown the ship up, but today it appears the ship was sunk as the result of an on-board accident)  which occurred in 1898, led to the Spanish-American War. After the Americans won, the Spanish gave them, not the Cuban people, the flag symbolizing victory. Leonard Wood was named military governor of Cuba, where he worked to bring progressive reforms to the island. The American naval base at Guantanamo Bay was established. “This gave the Americans the right to interfere in Cuban activities whenever they wanted to,” Miller said.

In 1952, Wilencia Batista staged a coup which “pissed a lot of people off, including a young firebrand lawyer named Fidel Castro.” In 1959, Castro led a Socialist takeover of the country, seized all American assets, and formed close ties to Communist Russia.

Prompted by the heightened fears of Communism and the Cold War, the U. S. government lead by President Dwight Eisenhower, had planned an invasion of Cuba led by exiled Cubans. When John Kennedy assumed the presidency, he scaled down the proposal, but went ahead with the plan. The Bay of Pigs resulted in a quick victory for Castro and a political disaster for Kennedy. The Bay of Pigs was followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis and an American embargo on Cuba, which is still in effect today. Cuba became a country-non-grata to the United States.

In the 1990’s, with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War becoming a distant memory, President Bill Clinton allowed an increase in people-to-people, professional research, and journalistic trips to Cuba. But the strict trade embargo remained in place. Because of the strong political power of anti-Castro Cuban residents of Florida, politicians feared to open relations completely.

In recent years, Cuba has stayed on the American political radar with the kidnapping of young Elian Gonzalez, the popularity of the documentary on legendary Cuban musicians The Buena Vista Social Club, and the political incarceration of The Five, a group of supposed Cuban spies captured in the United States.

Miller said political considerations continue to keep Cuba and the U.S. apart. “It’s easier to maintain a bad policy than it is to come up with a new good one,” Miller said.

So what will happen in the years to come? Miller said it is impossible to say. “Every prediction in the last 53 years about Cuba has been wrong,” he noted. “Cuba is perfectly capable of screwing up its economy on its own without any help from the United States.”

In fact, Miller noted, Cuba simply isn’t ready to open its doors to an influx of American tourists. “There aren’t sufficient facilities,” he said. “You’ve spent time here. Can you imagine Spring Break in Havana? That would be a disaster. The fact is that Cuba (after 50 years of trade embargo) is very fragile today. It would take time and planning to open the island. But there is a level of curiosity about Cuba. More people will come. They will just have to accept a certain level of vacation.”

After the lecture, Judy and I talked about the presentation. We agreed with Tom that Cuba isn’t ready for a major influx of tourism. We both believed the ongoing embargo was senseless and should be lifted. But in a selfish way, we liked the isolated Cuba we were discovering. It was different than anywhere else in the world; it hadn’t been corrupted by the quickening pace of life brought on by rapid advances in technology and corporate McDonalds-ization. We had been to China. There was a Starbucks inside the Forbidden Temple and Haagen Dazs ice cream was available for sale at the Great Wall. In an increasingly flat world, Cuba remained a unique hill. Was there a way for the island to keep the best part of its uniqueness and still garner the benefits of open relations with its giant neighbor to the north? I guess only time will tell.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order

America Loses a Civil Rights Legend and Its Last Living Link to King’s ‘I Have a Dream Speech’

John Lewis was the greatest American I ever got to meet and talk to in person. He was often at the Newseum when I led tours there. He was courageous and kind, both at a national level and a personal level.

When he found out our grandchildren were then living in the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody, he offered to take them down to the House floor and show them how voting there worked. It was an offer from the heart, since neither Judy nor I or Michael nor Shannon could vote for him.

All of us who care about the America John Lewis believed in and was jailed and beaten for, need to rededicate ourselves to continuing his battle to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.

What a great role model he was and what a great motto he left us — find a way to make a way out of no way.

He had a wonderful sense of humor, too. This is a paraphrase of a story I heard him say several times:“When I was young, I wanted to be a preacher. So I would get my brothers and sisters to round up all our chickens and I would get up on a big box and preach to them,You know what — those chickens never listened to a word I said. I wasn’t happy then, but it did prepare me for today — those Republicans in Congress don’t listen to a thing I say either”.

Goodbye, Congressman Lewis. You were the youngest speaker (at age 23) at the 1965 March on Washington and the last living on-stage-that-day link to Dr. Martin Luther Jr. and his resoundingly notable “I Have a Dream” speech.

You will be missed but you inspired so many that you will never be forgotten and your work will never be forsaken.