Editor’s Note: (Before reading this post, I recommend that you check out our Cuban Baseball Primer and Havana Cuba Sugar Kings posts. Ariel Pestano, Reflections By Comrade Fidel, Commie Ball and Fuera de Liga are good supplementary readings as well.)
The impetus for the trip
This past week I traveled to Havana, Cuba with former Mop-Up Duty writer Early to experience Cuban baseball and to immerse ourselves in the Cuban culture. Early’s father (and also former Mop-Up Duty writer Daperman) had always regaled us on the Havana Cuba Sugar Kings and we were fascinated by his stories. Pair that with the mysteriousness of a country like Cuba, possessing a league full of major league talent (as evidenced by the World Baseball Classic) that few have ever seen and you have the recipe for a week full of baseball nerdiness.
My interest in Cuban baseball first began during the 2006 iteration of the World Baseball Classic. At the time (and still to this day) my beloved Toronto Blue Jays were struggling to find an acceptable solution at the shortstop position. A number of no-names and retreads had clogged up the position for years and it was becoming increasingly evident that in order for the Jays to be competitive in the AL East they needed a solution. That solution was right before my eyes and playing for team Cuba: Yuliesky Gourriel. I was amazed that this slick-fielding, 5-tool player with power to all fields was not currently playing in MLB. In fact, he was a virtual unknown. I thought to myself that he would look great in a Jays uniform – instead of the softball-style Cuban League uniforms. Even if he couldn’t play in the states, perhaps he could suit up for Toronto’s 81 home games?
As I kept track of Cuba’s progress in the WBC, I quickly realized that Gourriel was far from that nation’s only star. Players such as Yadel Marti, Pedro Lazo, Frederich Cepeda, Eduardo Paret, Osmani Urrutia, Yuliesky Gonzalez, Alexei Ramirez and Yoandry Garlobo were all able to step on to Major League fields that day and would not have missed a beat. Who were these mysterious Cubans? It was said that Cuba didn’t even send their best players to the tournament for fear of defection! Often times a Major League Calibre Player would never see an inning of playing time. For example, former New York Mets SS Rey Ordoñez didn’t play a lick as a backup shortstop for the Havana Industriales. Why not? The starter was the legendary Germán Mesa. Mesa is considered the greatest defensive Cuban League shortstop of all time. Those who saw him play in his late career say he was indeed equal to or better than Ozzie Smith as a fielder. He could also hit much better than Ordóñez. (Highlights of his play can be seen here around the :30 mark) One day I knew I would have to travel to Cuba and see these players for myself.
What is undeniable is that Cuba is endlessly fascinating and full of contradictions: a poor country with one of the best health care systems in the world and a developing country with a near 100% literacy rate and free education (including University). Cuba is physically beautiful and seductive and it has a rich and ever-evolving culture that dates back many hundreds of years. The Cuban people are tough, resilient, egalitarian and pathologically sociable.
I chose to fly to Havana since it is a veritable hotbed of baseball. Havana is a city of faded glamour, where ancient Chevrolets and Buicks cruise the potholed streets, colonial facades propped up by wooden scaffolding peel and crumble from perennial neglect, and plumbing fluctuates from inadequate to non-existent. Yet Havana contains some of the Americas’ finest Spanish colonial architecture and was once a byword for sophistication and elegance. Much of that sophistication, elegance and natural beauty still remain.
Not only is the city beautiful but its inhabitants are as well. Cuba is a true melting pot of races, the descendants of Spanish conquerors and later migrants, French exiles, African slaves, Chinese indentured labourers, Soviets and others – including some indigenous Tainos. Intermarriage has been common for centuries, and up to 70 percent of the population is said to be of mixed race. As the Cubans say, “there is Biagra on every corner.” Replace the B with a V and you will know what I am talking about. Declaring racial equality was one of the first acts of the Revolution and legislation to abolish discrimination was quickly passed. From my observations, the racial harmony in Cuba is truly profound.
Baseball in Havana
Today Havana is a sprawling city of fifteen municipalities and a population of 2.2 million. Because of its size, Havana is able to support two teams: the Industriales and the Metropolitanos. There is a 3rd team, La Habana, that represents the province of Havana. The Industriales are the most storied and successful franchise in Cuban League history. However, a steady stream of defections (estimated by one baseball fanatic at 100 over the past 20 years) has severely depleted the talent pool for the franchise.
One big difference between Cuban and American baseball is that Cuban players must play for the province in which they were born. This creates an imbalance much like the financial imbalance in Major League Baseball. Havana has a lot more people than any other province, and so it tends to have a disproportionate share of the better players. The Metros are the Cuban baseball authorities’ answer to this: a second Havana team. The first team is Industriales, the most famous team in Cuba. In theory, having to field two teams should force Havana to dilute its talent; in practice, because the Havana officials who run the thing want to win, it concentrates it. The Metros are used as a farm team for Industriales—a place for raw youth and decrepit old age. The minute a Metro looks promising, he becomes an Industriale. If the Industriales are the New York Yankees of Cuba, the Metros are the Pittsburgh Pirates. Their seasons begin without hope and end with relief.
The first game I saw (boxscore) was between the Metropolitanos and Las Tunas, a team from the eastern part of the country. The Metropolitanos are truly a pitiful team and are placed firmly in the basement with a 15-51 record. Las Tunas is a decent ball club in the middle of the pack with a 38-27 record. I was surprised to learn that all games this season would be day games, generally starting at 1:30pm or 2:00pm. The reason for this is so that energy could be saved by not having to turn on the stadium lights. Televised games are the exception and are played at night. The Metropolitanos are supposed to play out of Estadio Latinoamericano but on this day they play out of Estadio Santiago “Changa” Mederos – and I never found out why. Changa Mederos is not a home ball park to any team but many teams play there. I can only assume that it might be similar to baseball in Japan where they play baseball in smaller/lesser known areas to spread the game and give fans who normally wouldn’t have a chance to see the game the opportunity.
The price of admission (for tourists like myself) was $3CUC (Convertible Cuban Pesos) which works out to roughly $3 American Dollars. I didn’t see the price of admission for Cubans for this game, but did find out the next day at the Industriales game. Tickets are general admission and fans may roam the stadium and sit where they choose. The ballpark itself was run-down looking and could be compared to a AA or A ballpark in terms of size. It probably held 8,000 with approximately 1,000 in attendance.
As the game began I realized right away that there were some distinct differences. For instance, the starter for Las Tunas did not record a single out in the first inning while giving up 4ER. The pitcher brought in to relieve him, Erick Sanchez, went 7IP strong. Now that is some serious Mop-Up Duty! Not only that, after the starter’s first walk allowed, the manager for Las Tunas immediately got 2 relievers up in the pen to warm up.
As you can see from the above video, pitching change etiquette is slightly different in Cuba. The pitcher being pulled must wait on the mound until after the manager has pointed to the pen and the reliever has walked to the mound. At this point the pitcher will hand off the ball to the reliever and then walk back to the dugout. Usually they will high five each other but this is not always the case.
Speaking of high-fives, every time a run is scored the entire team will come out and congratulate the runner who scored. This is the same for a home run, as seen in the above video. Cuban players aren’t shy either; often times instead of a high-five they will give their teammates a full-on embrace.
The game was a high scoring affair, as you can tell if you clicked the above boxscore. There were plenty of home runs hit, especially by Las Tunas, that were absolute moonshots and left the entire ballpark for kids to fight over on the street. Despite such a high scoring game, both managers constantly called for sacrifice bunts. Hit & run plays were common as well. This aggressive style of play I expected to see after watching Cuba in both iterations of the World Baseball Classic. The fans in this game were extremely passionate, arguing to the point it looked like they would come to blows (from a foreigner’s perspective). However, this is not the case as it is all in good fun and vulgarity is rarely employed.
The game went by at quite a fast clip, partly due to the typically aggressive Cuban style of play. Rarely would a Cuban hitter “work the count” like the Yankees and Red Sox do and subsequently cause their games to go 3.5-4+ hours. Cubans swing early and often in counts. It seemed the hitters were far ahead of the pitchers and the majority of pitchers on both teams were side-armers. It is a trend in Cuban baseball. Maybe it leads to less shoulder and elbow injuries? Despite being side-armers, I did notice that many of them throw overhand curveballs and that the curve is the only pitch that they throw overhand. As a result, when the hitter sees the change in the arm angle he knows what is coming: the deuce. This has to be one of the contributing factors as to why the hitters are ahead of the pitchers.
The players play fundamental baseball which has been ingrained in them from an early age. The infielders have very smooth hands and defenders will make the right decisions – mostly. I say mostly because sometimes things don’t always go to plan. You see, in Latin-American culture and Cuban culture especially, there is a concept known as machismo. This machismo is a hyper-masculine sexually-charged culture and it finds its way on to the baseball field in some instances where players try to be the “big man.” For instance, with a runner on second base, a player at bat may stroke a single to right field. The right-fielder, wanting to show everyone how big of a man he is, will try to nab the runner at home plate despite having a snowball’s chance in hell. This will allow the hitter to take second base with ease. Throughout a game these machismo mis-plays will catch up with a team. With that said, over the course of a game things tend to balance out since both teams will be guilty of committing them.
Unlike MLB, there is very little distance between the Cuban ballplayers and their fans. The players don’t pretend to not hear the fans or feign indifference at a particularly good heckle.
Here is one effect of keeping money out of sports: it lessens the distance between the players and the fans. The players are as poor as the people who watch them, and in many cases poorer. For anything above and beyond their meager salaries they depend on the generosity of these fans. “When it rains,” says one fan, “I’ve seen the players just come into the stands and sit with the fans until it stops.”
Cuban ballplayers earn between 250 – 300 national pesos per month. This works out to a little more than $11 American Dollars.
Another difference is that teams will hold team meetings on the field between innings to both motivate the team and emphasize strategy. Managers range from colourful to livid and are very animated.
What I found bizarre was that there was minimal clapping and cheering for routine plays like you see in the U.S. and Canada. However, should a Cuban ballplayer make an error, he will never hear the end of it. Fans are relentless and merciless if they see a misplayed ball or a perceived lack of hustle. Truly spectacular plays are recognized by the Cuban fans. For outfielders who make dazzling catches, the entire infield will run out to the outfield to congratulate him.
One note about Cuba: unlike other countries in Latin-America, Catholicism made scant inroads into the black population due to the strength of Afro-Cuban religion. The religion of the Yoruba people came to Cuba in slave ships and evolved over the centuries into the Afro-Cuban religion generally known as Santeria. It is found everywhere and is practiced by Cubans of every colour, age and political affiliation. It is even found on the baseball field as players will perform Santeria-inspired rituals on the field and before at-bats. For instance, a player will pick up a fist-full of dirt and spread it ritualistically around the baseline before an at-bat.
The Esquina Caliente
The next day we traveled to the Esquina Caliente or “Hot Corner” in English (and presumably where Jorge Arangure derived the name for his excellent blog on Latin-American Baseball). The Esquina Caliente is located in the Central Park in Havana and is where locals come to discuss the finer points of baseball. Much like at the game, arguments are animated with plenty of shouting and gesticulation. Discussion is not limited to Cuban ball: steroid scandals, baseball history and MLB scores are discussed as well. It is hard to know where they get their information from since MLB scores are not available to them – but the Cubans are a resourceful people.
Today’s debate, as you can see above, was centred on the day’s hotly contested match-up between the Havana Industriales and the provincial team, La Habana. It is similar to an argument between two Jays fans regarding Gustavo Chacin:
Fan 1: Gustavo Chacin is such a stud! How do you not realize that?
Fan 2: He sucks. He walks a ton of guys and hardly strikes out anyone. His ERA is consistently over 5.00.
Fan 1: Who cares? All he does is WIN!
Add in screaming at the top of one’s lungs with wild hand gestures and what you’ve got is the Esquina Caliente.
The Havana Industriales
This brings us to our second game. This time it was held at Estadio Latinoamericano and was between the Havana Industriales and La Habana (box score). The Estadio seats 50,000 people and is similar in appearance to old Yankee Stadium, except in an even worse state of disrepair. No fans were in the bleacher sections for the games we attended because there was apparently something wrong with them. About 8,000 fans showed up for both games, I imagine that number would be substantially higher had they been playing at night.
The cost of admission for tourists is the same as “Changa” Mederos- $3CUC. The cost for Cubans however is substantially lower: $1 national peso. This works out to about 5 cents to see the game. Fans of the game who can’t scrape together a peso are in luck since admission is free if you arrive an hour and a half before the scheduled start of the game. This allows for colourful characters to get in, just like the guy pictured below:
Not only are the Industriales and La Habana natural rivals geographically, but they are jostling for position in the standings. The Industriales sport a record of 35-32 while La Habana is a half -game back at 34-32. As is the custom in Cuba, fans of each team sit on the side of their respective team’s dugout. This is not a hard rule, as some fans mill about the ballpark during the game. However, if it is an Industriales vs. Santiago de Cuba game, the rule is strict. You do not want to get caught surrounded by the other team’s rabid pack of fans or you will be eaten alive.
We didn’t know it, but we were about to be treated to a pitching duel. For La Habana, Jonder Martinez was making the start and he is #4 in the league in ERA at 2.11. For the Industriales, Odrisamer Despaigne was on the bump and had struck out 83 Cuban hitters in 83IP.
Early on we were treated to the greatest defensive play I had seen in my life. The CF for the Industriales, Carlos Tabares (who was on Cuba’s 2006 WBC roster), was playing shallow and the La Habana hitter put a charge into one that looked like it was headed over the wall. Tabares ran hard, tracked it down and made a sliding over the shoulder catch at the wall. It was better than Willie Mays’ “The Catch.” No joke. The Cuban fans loved it and were calling him a champion since he played with his heart. Unfortunately for Tabares, he had to be carried off the field on a stretcher by his teammates.
Another thing I noticed early on was the flair that homeplate umpire Omar Lucero was exhibiting. His calls were flamboyant and spirited. The highlight of his performance was the call he would make when a batter would strike out looking. He would drop his arms to his sides, walk about 5-6 steps to his right and then punch out the hitter emphatically. I thought he was about to walk into the stands and punch us in the face. We loved it. If only MLB umpires displayed the artistic panache this Cuban umpire did then the game would be so much more entertaining. Below is a little taste:
I spoke earlier about the Latin-American machismo, so it should come as no surprise that Cuban players like to “pimp” home runs. You had better be sure that the ball leaves the yard because if it doesn’t… the Cuban fans will be on you. Even fans of your own team. And it isn’t just the regular heckle. They will wait for you outside the players entrance for a heckle that is much more “up close and personal.”
Tourists are able to bring alcohol into the ballpark but not locals. The reason for this is because, as one Cuban put it, it is like “adding gas to the fire.” With Cubans being so passionate about baseball as it is, the addition of alcohol will cause problems. For a country that is founded on egalitarianism the way Cuba is (supposed to be) it is very frustrating to see many instances of hypocrisy in Cuban life. As a tourist, I couldn’t walk in the streets with a Cuban citizen because they would be arrested by the police. This is just another one of the contradictions in Cuba that I mentioned at the beginning and I could get into this into some detail but I’ll try to stick to baseball. The point is, tourists can bring in alcohol and I was a tourist so it was a good time.
As good of a time as drinking beer at the ballpark is, it also has its consequences. Like going to the bathroom. Trust me, there has never been a more ancient, dirty, smelly men’s bathroom created than the one at Estadio Latinoamericano. It is an atrocity.
The neighbourhood around the stadium is no great shakes. In fact, there is no parking lot at the stadium which means baseball games at the stadium have a very small carbon footprint. No lights, no cars and fans arrive by foot, bicycle or public transit. One neat aspect of the stadium is two apartment buildings over the left-field wall that house some fanatics of the two teams – the Industriales and the Metropolitanos. What is comical is that just as in life, the Metropolitanos get second-billing and a much smaller building.
Remember how I said how passionate Cuban baseball fans are? Well, they are also extremely fickle. For example, in the 6th inning – down two runs – the Industriales fans began to leave in droves out of spite for their team. It was an informal protest.
Ballpark fare consists of the usual peanuts and popcorn. There are no hot dogs – but only a hot-dog like snack that is distinctly Cuban. The “Jamon y Queso” is fried dough stuffed with ham and cheese. It is truly delicious and would do well at the Rogers Centre. Cuban sandwiches are served along with apple juice. Candies are available as well as little caramel pizzas. There is also Pelly: a puffed corn snack that comes in 3 flavours: Ajo (Garlic), Queso (Cheese) and Jamon (Ham/Bacon). The Ajo is delicious with a very strong garlicky flavour.
This game ended up as a 4-1 win for La Habana. Both pitchers, Martinez and Despaigne, had big league curveballs. Despaigne had the better “stuff” but wasn’t able to command it as well as Martinez.
After the game we headed to the sports bar of the Industriales – “La Pelota.”
This is the exact thing Toronto needs. A bar somewhat near the ballpark that serves up dollar beers and is filled up with baseball memorabilia. Pictures of Castro, the Estadio and all the great Industriales players adorn the walls. When players defect from Cuba, their records are stricken from the record books and never spoken of again. There was no sign of El Duque but there was a picture of his doppelganger – Lazaro de la Torre.
Our third and final game was another matchup between the Industriales and La Habana (boxscore). This was easily the most exciting game I have been to in recent memory. First of all, the pitcher for La Habana (Richard Aguilera) had a big-league-ready 11-5 curveball at his disposal. In my amateur opinion it was a 60 on the 20-80 scouting scale. The only problem is that on this day he didn’t have great command with it combined with the fact that he was being squeezed by the umpire. The Industriales jumped out to a 2-0 lead but La Habana scratched back with a run scoring double that chased starter Alexander Carrera in the first inning:
With the Industriales up 5-2 in the 7th inning, reliever Carlos Martinez got himself into a bases loaded jam with two out. Industriales manager Germán Mesa called on Metropolitanos call-up Yohandri Portal to get them out of the inning. It was not to be as the left hander gave up a Grand Slam home run by Ernesto Molinet to put La Habana up 6-5. The Industriales tied it up at 6-6 in the bottom of the inning. In the 8th La Habana put two more on the board to make it 8-6 and the La Habana fans were going crazy. In fact, Cuban fans are all crazy…. crazy loud! Bike horns and trumpets are commonplace in the stands and a handful of Cuban fans easily out-cheer a full house at the dome:
In the bottom of the 8th the Industriales staged a two-out rally and put four runs on the board, eventually winning the game 10-8. Alexander Mayeta (or Malleta, as some call him) put an absolute charge into one for a home run. I had been keeping an eye on Mayeta (#55) for both games since he had big time power. He was also on the 2009 Cuban World Baseball Classic team. Armando Rivero closed it out for the save.
With so much excitement going on I hardly had time to pick up on the minutiae of the Cuban game, but I did. Between innings, bench players for each team would stretch and warm up in case they needed to get into the game. This seems like a great idea and I am not sure why it isn’t taking place in MLB. Another thing: every inning or two, depending on if it is needed or not, the batter’s and catcher’s boxes would be redrawn. I’m not sure why, since many players were standing outside the batter’s box and it was never enforced.
After strikeouts or groundouts, the ball would be tossed around the horn not once but twice. Not only that, the Catcher is involved both times.
Near the end of this game there was some very, very peculiar in-game decision making by the manager. With one out and down three runs with a runner on first base, the manager elected to lay down a sacrifice to move the runner over. I don’t know if he was trying to catch the other team by surprise but it makes no sense to waste outs near the end of the game and down by three.
Cuban baseball culture
As I mentioned earlier, Cubans are pathologically social. The Cuban way of life is very accessible to foreigners, especially to those who speak Spanish. Much of life is lived on the street or in the open doorway and people are generally interested in each other. Even in the crowded centre of Havana, it is impossible to feel anonymous as one might feel in most large Western cities. People will make eye contact as they pass and someone will soon begin talking to you. If you ask for directions to a place, you are very likely to be taken there, especially if your Spanish isn’t good. “Stranger Danger” is a concept that does not apply here. This kindness is all the more remarkable since the preferential treatment of turistas has created to some extent the inequalities that the Revolution abolished.
Cuban baseball fans are no different than the people on the street. The typical tourist (especially Canadian) instinct when approached for a conversation is to run away. If you can, for a moment, be open to social interaction – you will find that Cubans will want to know all about you, your family and your country. It’s well-intentioned and understandable, particularly from a people who have not themselves traveled. They are polite, funny, well-educated and very pleasant. We met many Cuban friends and had tonnes of fun with them by being open-minded. It also helps to be able to speak Spanish, but there is a caveat. I learned my Spanish in Mexico and because of this fact Cubans were always telling me I sounded Mexican. Cubans have a very distinct Spanish accent that can be difficult to grasp – similar to how Brits sound to us Canadians and vice-versa. Cuban Spanish is idiosyncratic and is notoriously spoken very fast with a tendency to swallow consonants. For example: in Mexico “stop!” is “alto!” In Cuba they don’t know the word “alto” and instead it is “paré.” Don’t be afraid to ask for them to speak more slowly – mas despacio por favor! They may not understand you or you may not understand them but don’t get down, it is just a different kind of Spanish!
Anyway, you may feel that they are using you – and they may very well be – but who cares? They have so little.
Cubans use Mizuno baseballs in games such as the one pictured below as used by the International Baseball Federation. They use Mizunos, of course, because they are a Japanese company and not subject to the embargo. No Rawlings for Cuba! The bats used in the Cuban National Series are maple bats, imported from Canada.
Jays fans surely know what it is like to listen to a Jamie Campbell or Rod Black broadcast. To them, every flyball off the bat is a sure home run. The same can be said for the fans in Cuba who freak out every time there is a hit to the outfield. For example:
Again, the infielders are very slick defenders. I’ve noticed sometimes that they will double clutch just to tease the runner before throwing him out. Perhaps another instance of machismo. Below isn’t really an example of that but a fine-fielded play nonetheless.
For those who would approach such a trip with trepidation, I recommend Kit Krieger’s Cuba Ball Tours. Krieger is a former PCL player and great fan of the Cuban game and will be your tour guide throughout Cuba. He will also introduce you to Cuban legends such as Connie Marrero and members of the old Havana Cuba Sugar Kings. It was too expensive for a poor blogger such as myself, but if I had the money I would do it in a heartbeat. Apparently Keith Olbermann is along for the ride this year!
So that about does it for my report on the Cuban Baseball Experience. It really is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the Cuban experience as a whole is concerned. Salsa & traditional Cuban music, flamenco dancing, urban spelunking, pristine beaches, Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts, delicious Daiquiris and Cigars to be smoked all await you in Havana. I am already planning my next trip down.
Addendum: Three years later, I returned to Cuba and much has changed. Check out My Return to Cuba to find out what.
Featured image credit: AP Photo/Javier Galeano.