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