I saw what a baseball looks like when you knock the cover off it. Here in Cuba, it’s not how hard they hit the ball. It’s what they wind up playing with. That’s all they have.
The pre-teen ball player stood next to me in the parking lot of staid old Estadio Latinoamericano and handed the ball to me. It looked like a million Band-Aids wrapped together. In actuality, the ball was years old and merely lost its cover from being hit over and over and over by the same group of boys and men who gather here in the stadium parking lot every day to play pickup games.
I came to see Los Industriales, the New York Yankees of Cuban baseball who have won 12 Cuban championship since they formed in Havana in 1962. They play every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at Estadio Latinoamaericano, a crumbling dinosaur of a stadium that seats 58,000 crazed fans. The façade of the stadium, built in 1946, looks like Cuba. Peeling paint. Boarded-up windows. Cement blocks on the sidewalk.
The place was dead. I saw one open door. I peeked into see a poster of a younger Fidel Castro in a Cuba jersey waving a bat and eyeing a pitch. The two people said no game today. They’re preparing for “Il Classico.” That’s the World Baseball Classic. The Cubans I met were less concerned about who would replace Castro than how Cuba would do against China Monday in Japan. (Cuba won, 12-0).
But the real action was in the adjacent parking lot. This pickup game was nothing like I’d ever seen in the United States. Never, even as a child who lived at my neighborhood park in Eugene, Ore., in the ‘60s, did I see a neighborhood field two complete baseball teams.
From Havana’s Cerro neighborhood that borders the stadium, they looked like two street gangs. It was an oddball collection of torn tank tops, ragged shorts, beat-up Yankees hats and flapping old shoes. The ages ranged from about 8 to 58 but they all had one thing in common.
They could play.
The level shocked me. A third baseman in an orange T-shirt and floppy shorts back-handed a short-hop rocket like he was picking up a shoe and fired a strike to a first baseman who couldn’t have been more than 12. The same first baseman perfectly fielded a hard bouncer between hops – bad hops in a Third World parking are brutal – for an easy out.
A centerfielder zeroed in on a long drive that sailed through some telephone wires to make a catch in what must’ve been 370 feet from the home plate hand painted in one of the parking stalls.
This wasn’t a bunch of neighborhood hacks who came out to drink beer and bond. They were serious.
But then, this is Cuba. Baseball is part of the lifeblood that keeps the local population moving along through teeming oppression and poverty. Karl Marx said religion is the opium of the masses.
In Cuba, it’s baseball.
Of course, playing in a parking lot has its problems. One time a batter shot one straight up the middle. It hit a curb, ricocheted over a mangy plot of grass, rolled under a ’53 Chevy passing through and came to rest against a Cyclone fence.
An inning later, with a runner on first, a man in his 20s gapped one between left and center. The gazelle-like left fielder stopped it from rolling into an adjacent soccer game and threw the relay to the shortstop. Just like in an instructional video, the shortstop wheeled in one motion for home plate. Standing behind the plate was a kid no more than 5 feet tall or 12 years old.
And this baserunner was comin’.
The shortstop threw a bullet on the fly to the tiny catcher who didn’t give an inch. He caught the ball and tagged the angry runner who tried to pull the ball out of his glove. An old man in his 50s, sporting a Che Guevara tattoo on his left calf and who appeared to be a pseudo player-ump, rung up the runner like Joe West in the 2005 World Series.
The baserunner was furious. He yelled at the old man. The old man yelled back. The runner’s teammates yelled at the old man. The other team defended him. Cooler heads prevailed and the teams switched sides. While a batter rounded first on a double down the line, the baserunner was still yapping from third base. The old man looked at me, the only gringo within miles of this fascinating slice of Cuban life, and smiled.
Dusk was settling and I could barely see the pitched balls. One older guy in a beat-up olive ball cap shocked me when he came up and said, “You want play baseball?” I had heard very few people speak English in two days in Havana.
“You speak English.”
“Some. You want play baseball, you come Saturday or Sunday. You play with us.”
His name was Manuel and he puts in alarm systems around the city. I remembered him making a fine play at second base. I also remembered his textbook rotation of his hips with his stroke.
Manuel is 40.
“How often do you play?”
“Every day. We play three innings from 3:30 until dark.”
“You guys are really good.”
“Oh, no. But we try. We play every day.”
I asked him about the equipment. They all pool their resources and buy a baseball from the team across the street every few years or so.
“A baseball costs $5. We make $16 a month. That is one third of our salary.”
I offered to buy them one but he said, “No, they are closed now. But gracias.”
A big burly slugger came up and showed me his tennis shoes. One had a huge hole in the sole and neither had any laces. The shoes’ tongues flapped like Michael Jordan’s.
“Quarenta e cinco,” he said with a laugh.
Manuel said, “He wants you to know he wears a size 45 sneaker.”
Cuba is off playing in Japan, but Cuban baseball lives on. Every day.
WEDNESDAY: A TRIP TO ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S VILLA