Béisbol Cubano: Industriare 7 – Guantana 1

By Douglas Bernon
March 2, 2001
Ensenada de Abalos, San Fransisco, Cuba
022 12.171 N 084 25.449 W

Walking slowly, traveling without an agenda, stopping often, lingering long enough to get to meet people: This is really the only way to get a feel for a place. This afternoon, in La Esperanza, a sleepy fishing village on Cuba's north coast, ambling along the main street, I watched some boys on their way home from school, tossing a ball back and forth and using a stick as a bat.

A ball came my way, I tossed it back, and I got into the game a bit and was reminded that cruising is a whole bunch more about people than it is about boats. Today, nestled inside the protection of the reef that traces this coast, cruising is about Béisbol, also known here as pelota, and it's a national passion.

Photo of Cuban children
Despite the differences in their lives, kids in Cuba like playing the same games
as kids everywhere — baseball ranking high on the list of favorites.

A few weeks back, while we were in Havana, we went to a national game and were swept up in the excitement. The stadium in Havana, Estadio Latinoamericano, was built in 1946, holds 60,000 people, and is tucked back in the Cerro section of the city. This could be a jewel of a stadium, but like so much else here, its down-at-the-heels condition gives it an air of Cuban-functional: cracking concrete, leaking bathrooms, and except for the field itself, pretty much colorless.

The ramped walkways are like the streets everywhere here, requiring rapt attention so you don't lose a leg in an open hole. The stadium seats are made of rickety wood slats, some of which have been missing for some time. Mercifully, there are no corporate skyboxes, sponsorship banners, or product advertisements, but in their stead is the never-ending sales pitch of revolutionary slogans and posters. The scoreboard is not for pyrotechnics. Its all business: Al Bate, Average, Strikes, Bolas, Outs, as well as C, H, and E (Runs, Hits, and Errors). Right- and left-field fences are at 325 feet, and center field is 400.

The stadium is a people's place, not a tourist shrine like the Capitolio building in Old Havana, which is a gorgeous structure built in the imperialist heydays of the 1920s and, since the revolution 42 years ago, fastidiously restored and maintained for tourists. Admission is one peso, and there are no reserved seats. Despite being dilapidated by American standards, there's a vital spirit there that transcends anything physical, and I loved the place.

Regardless of the venue and the quality of play (the game we saw fell short of World Series caliber), any baseball stadium is a nifty place to spend a few hours. As we walked toward it, passing the enormous monument dedicated to the worshiped Jose Marti and the wall-sized, steel silhouette of Che, I felt a long-forgotten but immediately recognizable tingle the closer we got to the ticket booth. In my mind I was smelling my father's cigarettes and warm peanuts and an old ball glove that I wish I still had today.

Cubans have been playing baseball since the 1870s, and the game is known to be one of Castro's loves. A serious player in his youth, he longed to go pro in America, hoping to pitch for the now-defunct Washington Senators, but he didn't make the cut.

In the capital city of Havana there are three teams: Industriare, Metro Politano, and Habana, and several games are played each week. There are also teams in each province, where there are local stadiums. We went to watch a game on a Sunday afternoon. A Cuban friend suggested that if it was a warm day and an important game, we should arrive by noon to queue for tickets for the 1:00 game, or at least we thought that's what he told us. It turns out not to have been a warm day, not to have been an important game, and play didn't begin until 2:00, so when tickets went on sale at 12:45, we were pretty close to the front of line. We waltzed over to terrific seats right behind the visiting team's dugout on the first-base side.

To our utter amazement, on the way into the stadium, the four of us, Diane, Harold, Bernadette, and I, ran into one of the only half-dozen people we knew in all of Havana: the fisherman Jose. He sat with us during the game and shared our enthusiasm, laughter, and our lunch of black bean-and-salsa burritos, cranberry tart squares, and lemonade, all of which we'd made on the boats and carried in our backpacks.

Photo of Douglas, Harold and Jose at a baseball game. Douglas, Harold, and Jose catch the action.

Having grown up in New York, Diane was a Yankees fan and knew her stuff. But this was Bernadette's first professional baseball game, and Harold, a Canadian, knew his hockey but hadn't been much inspired about baseball. I sat between the two of them and offered commentary throughout the game, explaining anything from how many balls and strikes there were to the arcane esoterica of the infield-fly rule.

My rambling Béisbol riffs were the adult fulfillment of a childhood dream. In the third grade, I wrote to Bill Veeck, the always-outrageous general manager of the Cleveland Indians, my hometown team. I offered to provide, at no pay, in exchange for free admission and a seat in the press box, a third-grader's view of the game as part of the radio broadcast. Veeck, known among other things for the ashtray he had built into his wooden leg, once put a midget in the lineup to throw off an opposing pitcher and entitled his autobiography Veeck as in Wreck. Despite his freethinking nature, he declined to hire me.

In Cuba, although baseball players are reputed to be near the peak of the state-regulated earning pyramid, no one here gets paid $10 million or $15 million a year to play catch in public. Those at the top of their game, who make it to the barnstorming level, are said to earn about 20 bucks a month. Baseball being the people's game, Harold treated all of us, including Jose to tickets, his splurge coming to almost a quarter.

As in every stadium I've ever been in, men marched the aisles and hawked food. But here, instead of pizza, hot dogs, and peanuts, there was pan con queso (a bit of cheese between two hunks of white bread), small sweet cakes dripping with syrup, and steaming, wonderfully bitter, heavily sugared, high-octane Cuban espresso, which comes in tiny, thimble-sized paper cups in the shape of hats and costs 25 centavos, or 1/4 of a peso, just more than one U.S. cent. There were no beer salesmen, but one man down the row from us was sucking pretty steadily from a plastic bottle of clear liquid, and his exuberance escalated inning by inning. We'd been given some sugar-cane hooch the week before, so I envied the buzz he was climbing into.

Having arrived early, I was a happy boy watching the teams chase fungos, do calisthenics, and take batting practice. I smiled at the youngsters pressed against the fence, with their eye-popping hero worship, talking to players and itching to catch errant fly balls. As a kid, I never went to a game without wearing my glove, ever hopeful to snag a treasure.

I was not a gifted player, and as often as not I found myself relegated to the dreaded insult of right field, but despite that I've always loved playing and watching the game. The late Bart Giamatti, professor of Renaissance literature at Yale and later president of that university (a gig the dude blew off in a nanosecond when called up to the serious big leagues as Commissioner of Baseball), often said the reason intellectuals liked the game so much is because it moves slowly enough for them to understand it.

He was right. It's full of pauses and time-outs and structured intervals between actions, serving up oodles of opportunity for woolgathering and wonder. Baseball is a game that's wonder-full. And slow. Very slow. So slow, in fact, that in America, two-thirds of the way through each game, electric organs blare, scoreboards scream, and everyone in the stadium is instructed to stand up and stretch, lest thousands of people just plain nod out completely.

Giamatti's reverential composition, The Green Fields of the Mind, and John Updike's elegiac tribute to Ted William's last at bat, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu", are my two favorite baseball essays. Each captures the magic, the heroism, and the humility of the game. Consider your personal sense of success in light of the fact that Williams, in 1941, was the last man in baseball to break .400 as a batting average for the season (he actually hit .406), meaning four times out of 10 he successfully hit the ball to advance to first base. This stupendous accomplishment also means that six times out of 10 he didn't make it. And no one has done even that well in 60 years. If most of us did our job well four times out of 10, we'd be looking for work. That's how hard this game really is.

Both Giamatti and Updike understood the Odyssean, mythic aspects of the game, myth after all being the boiling down of universal experience. And baseball is the repeated story of how one man, alone, as batter, must wrestle with the monsters of the world, the combined forces of nine other men, and do battle out on the field, all the while struggling to return safely "home."

Baseball is all about life's journeys and one's unceasing efforts to return to where one began. This is one reason I've always thought baseball, more than any other sport, is an apt parallel for psychoanalysis. Both require coeur-age, a concept based in the heart. Both are solo journeys fortified by teamwork that one draws upon, but ultimately must leave behind, to go forward alone. And with years of repetition, infinite pauses, brimming silences, cycles of time-outs, ample opportunity to test, rest, muse, and reconsider, one person, on life's field, can get back to the beginning and renew.

Baseball has appealed to me for many other reasons, too. I associate it with long afternoons with my father in the old Cleveland stadium. Sitting in Estadio Latinoamericano, I found myself remembering the day (ask any American, middle-aged, grown-up boy about his first glove, and he'll have tales with which to regale you) when my father took me at age six or seven on a Saturday morning to Newman's Sporting Goods in downtown Cleveland, where I tried on every manner of fantasy in the form of catcher's, first-baseman's and fielder's gloves, settling on a Lew Burdette model, which I wore out of the store. My dad then took me to a nearby restaurant for lunch, just us two men together, considering baseball and all things manly.

Photo of balconey of building in Havana

Halfway through our meal, I became breathless. At the table beside us, in all his nearly seven feet of splendor, was my wrestling hero at the time, Lord Layton. At the importuning of a doting father, he came to our table and signed my new glove, which I had not removed from my left hand, even as I held a sandwich in my right. Lou Burdett's signature had been branded in at the factory. Lord Layton's, which was considerably messier (he was a wrestler after all), was carved in blue ballpoint pen.

I don't know which lasted longer, the pen or the brand, or for that matter what became of my glove. I recall using it through college, where so many things were relinquished, lost, or just given away. Sitting in Havana, I thought of Layton, all of the pop flies I caught or bobbled and grounders I fielded or missed, of a particularly satisfying double I hit in fifth grade, and of my dad, but also of my mom, who to her everlasting credit, when my traveling-salesman father was on the road, would stand in the middle of Tolland Road and do her best to play catch with me. Mulling all of this during the game, I grasped more of why baseball always has felt important.

The game here started as games do in America. Everyone stood and quieted down, removed their hats, and some placed them over their hearts. The loudspeaker broadcast the national anthem to a small but hushed crowd, which erupted in cheers and applause at the final note. Within 30 seconds, the first pitch was thrown. High and outside, the leadoff batter walloped it hard, but it lingered in the wind and was caught near the left-field fence on the foul line, just shy of the 325 mark.

All afternoon I savored the quiet lulls in the action, which seemed to be chock-full of memories: of games, of my family, and also of baseball conversations with various psychoanalytic patients. Some of the men I worked with over the years found in baseball the metaphors through which they could tell their stories more vividly.