A while back I wrote an article on Cuban infielder Yuliesky Gourriel and Daperman penned an article on the Havana Sugar Kings. These articles I recommend as a primer to the article which I am about to write: a guide to Cuban Baseball.
(For a first hand account of baseball in Cuba, please check out My Cuban Baseball Experience)
Baseball came to Cuba in the 1860′s, brought by Cubans who studied in the United States and American sailors who docked in Matanzas Bay to load sugar. Together these sailors and Cubans built a baseball diamond at Palmar del Junco. This is where the first game in Cuban history was played. It quickly spread through the island and took hold with the Cuban people. Matanzas became known as the “Athens of Cuban baseball.”
Soon after this, the first Cuban War of Independence against its Spanish rulers spurred Spanish authorities in 1869 to ban playing the sport in Cuba. Cubans began to prefer baseball to viewing bullfights, which Cubans were expected to dutifully attend as homage to their Spanish rulers in an informal cultural mandate. As such, baseball became symbolic of freedom and egalitarianism to the Cuban people. The ban also prompted Esteban Bellan to join the semipro Troy Haymakers. He became the first Latin American player to play in a Major League in the United States. Bellan started playing baseball for the Fordham Rose Hill Baseball Club, while attending Fordham University (1863 – 1868). After that he played for the Unions of Morrisania, a New York City team. Bellan played for the Haymakers until 1862; in 1861 it joined the National Association.
The first official match in Cuba took place in Pueblo Nuevo, Matanaz, at the Palmar del Junco, December 27, 1874. It was between Club Matanzas and Club Habana, the latter winning 51 to 9, in nine innings.
The Spanish-American War brought increased opportunities to play against top teams from the United States. Also, the Cuban League admitted black players beginning in 1900. Soon many of the best players from the Northern American Negro Leagues were playing on integrated teams in Cuba. Beginning in 1908, Cuban teams scored a number of successes in competition against major league baseball teams, behind outstanding players such as pitcher Jose Mendez and outfielder Cristobal Torriente (who were both enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006). By the 1920s, the level of play in the Cuban League was superb, as Negro League stars like Oscar Charleston and John Henry Lloyd spent their winters playing in Cuba.
All of Cuba is a baseball hot bed it is played in the streets with sticks as bats and is an integral part of Cuban culture. The first Cuban-born player to play in the MLB was Rafael Almeida from Havana, who played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1911.
A separate league known as the “Super League” follows the five-month National League season with the top Cuban ball players placed on four teams in Havana, playing a 30 game schedule from April until May. In stark contrast to the Dominican Republic, Cuba Cuba possesses the top amateur baseball program in the world, winning countless other international tournaments. (Runner up in the inaugural World Baseball Classic of 2006). Editor’s note: After falling to Japan in the 2009 WBC, it was the first time in 51 years that Cuba will not play in the final of an amateur tournament it has participated in.
Cuban National League
The 90-game regular season schedule runs December to April and is followed by a three-round playoff format, featuring best-of-five quarterfinals, best-of-seven semifinals and a best-of-seven final. The best players in each province take the field for their province, and the age range is from 16-40. There are no trades or free-agent signings. Each club carries 30 players, but only 25 players travel for road games. Cuba employs the designated hitter, as its pitchers do not bat.
Teams include: Two teams in Havana (Industriales and Metropolitanos), Artemisa, Mayabeque, Pinar del Rio, the Isle of Youth, Cienfuegos, Ciego de Avila, Granman, Santiago, Guantanamo, Holguin, Las Tunas, Camaguey, Sancti Spiritus, Villa Clara and Matanzas. A great page of Cuban baseball logos can be found here.
Havana’s Industriales is comparable to the New York Yankees of the Cuban League. Industriales vs. Santiago de Cuba, is much like Yankees vs. Redsox. After Havana, Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city and where the Che Guevara-led revolution began.
Santiago is made up of mostly Afro-Cubans with Haitian and musical influences. Havana is where the revolution ended, and is home to mostly white Cubans.
Kind of like White Sox vs. Cubs.
Cuba’s ballparks are mostly similar to Japan’s or Korea’s. They are designed in a more oval shape that result in a significant amount of foul territory in the infield and behind home plate and less as you progress toward the outfield foul poles. Typical field dimensions are 325 feet down the lines, 360-380 feet to the gaps and 410 feet to straight away center, with many outfield fences no more than six to seven feet high. Seating capacity varies from 4,000 on the small but scenic Island of Youth to the 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, with most averaging 20,000. Guillermon Moncada Stadium in Santiago de Cuba and General Calixto Garcia Stadium Holguin are other favourites.
Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano is the largest ballpark in all of the Caribbean.
Fans have a variety of ballpark fare to chose from and some ballparks even allow fans to bring their own booze (rum and beer are the most popular) and food inside.
Like Dominicans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Venezeulans…Cubans like to listen to music and bring their own instruments to perform it live. The playlist will likely include salsa and boleros, son, cubano, cubano bop, merengue, conga, cha cha, guaracha, guaguanco callero, rumba, mambo, suco suco and reggaeton. It is quite a party atmosphere! You’ll hear no commercial announcements, nor witness any advertising for businesses along the outfield walls, thanks to the Revolution.
Most Monday-Saturday games begin at 8 p.m., with Sunday games usually starting at 2 p.m. The Island of Youth’s Cristobal Labra Stadium is Cuba’s ultimate throwback, with no ballpark lights and some contests starting at 10 a.m.
Cuban baseball really came to the forefront at the World Baseball Classic of 2006, losing in the final to Japan. There was a lot of mystery surrounding the team and many GM’s around MLB stated that the Cuban program was amateurish at best and would be exposed as such against professional international competition. Cuba obviously proved to be MLB calibre and played an exciting brand of baseball not typically seen on the North American stage, with many hit and runs, delayed steals, sacrifices, aggressive play and overall pressure applied to the opposing team. I also found it interesting the difference between the North American baseball culture and the Latino one. In North America, the prevailing ethos is that of “keep your head down, shut up and do your job” aka “playing the game the right way”. I found the Latino style to be a lot different with players being overly talkative to each other – and not talking about the weather or families like they do in MLB – but to get inside each other’s heads. For instance I remember one David Ortiz at bat where he was being peppered (presumably with insults) from Cuban catcher Ariel Pestano. The normally stoic Ortiz, following his third home run of the Classic, shot a long look back at chatty Cuban catcher Ariel Pestano after the blast. That was fun to see.
And of course, what article on Cuban baseball would be complete without a shout out to my boy Bill “Spaceman” Lee who just completed a semi-fictional (who knows really) documentary on him going to Cuba to play baseball as an old man. I haven’t seen it but I can pretty much guarantee it will be awesome.