A whole different world... my Cuban baseball experience
In late January, I had the opportunity to join 25 other baseball zealots on a 7-day odyssey to the island of Cuba. Organized by SABR member Kit Krieger out of Vancouver, who's been taking groups such as ours annually to the island since 2001, the Cubaball experience was one of the most satisfying travel journeys I've ever had. For, although the trip was themed around seeing baseball in the land of Fidel, the week quickly became a 50/50 split of baseball and culture.
Krieger's numerous contacts, gleaned thru his many years of travel there (this was his 19th trip), in Cuba afforded us a window on Cuban culture and history that few Americans could ever hope to gain access to. I personally had long wanted to visit Cuba for what I, and others, call the "time warp" experience; seeing things as they have remained largely unchanged to the outside world since 1959. But aside from eyeballing all the large 1950's-era American automobiles trolling the streets of Havana, it was the daily immersion in a culture that proved so warm and welcoming to outsiders that became my lasting memory of this trip.
The baseball portion of the itinerary centered around seeing five ball games in five different ballparks throughout the western and central part of the island. The Cuban professional league consists of 16 teams from Cuba's 14 provinces. They play an 90-game schedule from December through February and, unlike our professional ranks, players in Cuba play for the province where they live. So, for the most part, the talent level of a particular club from year to year is largely dependant on geography, not financial resources like back in the States. As a result, the level of play varies. We saw games where the skills demonstrated might be on a par with AA minor league ball and others where the defensive plays of a single game could quickly fill up the nightly "web-gems" segment on ESPN's "Baseball Tonight". The stadiums we visited were spartan in their creature comforts to say the least. Most of the crowd sits on concrete risers as actual individual wooden seats are few and reserved for local dignitaries. The only food concessions are limited primarily to the roving vendors selling paper tubes of roasted peanuts or a platter of roast pork sandwiches. Unlike their American stadium counterparts, there is no product advertising anywhere in any of the Cuban parks, just the occasional billboard boasting a slogan in support of the Revolution.
The crowds are loud, enthusiastic and passionate about their baseball and you often see small groups of fans emphatically and continually arguing strategy in the stands. Our group was fortunate enough to see three extra-inning games and two where the home team won in their final at-bat. In a country where the locals have so few distractions, the daily ball game is a source of immense pride. Cuban television broadcasts a game every evening. Each contest finds the two teams proudly displaying their brightly colored team flag over their dugout entrances and between innings, a young woman occasionally brings the umpires refreshments. When each run is scored, the entire team leaves their dugout and comes out along their baseline to congratulate their teammate in a long procession of "high fives".
Access to some of the players is also a benefit of Kreiger's long cultivation of relationships with officials on the island. Cubaball has for years regularily brought donations of baseballs and spare catching equipment for the country's amateur programs in the provinces and this generosity is a large part of the reason we were granted access to people and places that are normally off-limits to foreigners. We met Cuban legend Enrique Diaz, the Rickey Henderson of Cuban baseball and the country's all-time stolen base leader with 714 career thefts, still playing for the Metropolitans at age 42. And for baseball die-hards looking to return to the States with a souvenir of their visit, it is often possible, though strictly frowned on by local officials, to buy the players' jerseys right off their backs following the games. Many of our group, myself included, came home with several colorful game-used jerseys as a reminder of the games we saw.
But for a baseball historian such as myself, it was a trip to famed La Tropical Stadium in Havana that proved to be a real eye opener. Originally constucted in 1930, the stadium was host to a wide array of Negro League and Major League talent for more than 15 years. In fact, in 1930, a group of 27 major league players, including nine future members of the Hall of Fame (notably Bill Terry, Carl Hubbell, Chuck Klein and Al Lopez), travelled to Havana to stage a 7-game series at La Tropical. Although the stadium has since been turned into a track and field facility, the original steel and concrete grandstand still remains and a spectacular solid brass plaque commemorating the 1930 tour with all 27 Major league players' names and facsimilie signatures is mounted on the wall of the concourse. The plaque and the original tour were all but forgotten to baseball historians until noticed by Krieger and the first Cubaball delegation in 2001. Since then, Kreiger has sent financial aid to underwrite the restoration of the plaque(s). For myself, I was immediately wishing the walls of La Tropical could talk and share the tales of all the past greats who once roamed there.
In addition to, and equally impressive in my book, were the arranged visits to a couple of living links to Cuba's baseball past. Pitcher Conrado Marerro spent five seasons with the Washington Senators from 1950-1955. Although nearly 39 when he debuted in the major leagues, Marerro gained notoriety in the American League for his baffling array of off-speed pitches, primarily his slider. Ted Williams said of Marerro, "He throws you everything but the ball". Fast approaching his 99th birthhday(this April), Marerro lives in a small apartment with his grandson's family in a neighborhood of Havana. Despite having lost his eyesight three years ago, and speaking little English, his recall of players and events from days long gone nevertheless remains sharp. As our group's translator deftly paried questions and answers back and forth between Marerro and our group the love and affection between the diminutive righthander and the two Krieger brothers (who've visited Marerro annually for a decade now) was evident for all to see. He painstakingly signed several autographs for the group and even demonstrated his pitching grip. As out two-hour visit quickly flew by, everyone made plans to help celebrate his 100th birthday on next years' trip.
The other link to Cuba's professional past was an outing to the small town of Cruces, the ancestral home of legendary Negro Leagues star and Hall of Fame member, Martin Dihigo. Dihigo, who passed in 1971 and was elected to Cooperstown in 1977, played professionally in the United States, Cuba and Mexico for over 20 years beginning in 1926. Nicknamed by Cubans as "The Immortal", Dihigo is considered by many baseball historians to be the finest all-around player ever, white or black. That his memory is all but unknown to many present day fans is due mainly to the isolation of all things Cuban. Dihigo's son, Martin Jr., who is the spitting image of his famous father, and his family met us in the town square in Cruces and together we toured the local one-room museum dedicated to his father's memory. Then, everyone boarded our bus for the short trip to the local cemetery to visit his fathers' gravesite. Until just recently, the whereabouts of Dihigo's remains were a source of mystery to SABR members. When Cubaball made its first trip to Cuba nearly a decade ago, Krieger and others succeeded in locating Dihigo's resting place (with his late wife's family plot) and the group's increased awareness was instrumental in helping raise the funds necessary to give him his own memorial marker befitting a figure of his historic stature.
And while our trip included a wide array of non-baseball activities, for an experience unlike any other, I cannot recommend highly enough a trip to Cuba. With the looming uncertainty of Fidel's future, speculation as to the impact on Cuban-American relations is rampant. What ultimately will become of a land so different from our own is clearly unknown. But I wouldn't take the chance of waiting too long to find out.