We recently just returned from a trip to Cuba. No we did not sneak into Cuba from Mexico or Canada. We were given the Official Sherman Potter Okee Dokee from the United States. The present administration has relaxed some of the laws in regards to Cuban travel. We were going with a legal group for educational purposes.
I know that there are people who are reading this who are anti-Castro and will not have anything to do with the country until Castro has been removed. I am not here to make any political statement nor am I taking any sides on the issue. Some of my family had left Eastern Europe before they were rounded up by the Nazis. They were refused entry into the United States and instead of sailing back to a certain death, Cuba allowed them a port of entry and welcomed them. For that, I thank the Cubans.
We arrived at Jose Marti International Airport and instantly we turned the calendars back to the 1950s. You could not help but tell that Havana was the land that time forgot. The below picture was not out of the ordinary, it was common.
We noticed right away that the Cuban people were the friendliest and the most hospitable people we have come across in our travels. We also realized that no matter what their lot in life has given them, they were happy and passionate people. They have a passion for cigars (which are phenomenal), coffee (wow, never tasted anything like it), rum (Havana Club smooth as silk) music (jazz clubs all over the place and salsa bands in every bar). I knew they liked baseball but what I experienced was the most amazing sporting experience I have ever experienced.
We were able to obtain a few tickets for the Havana Industriales against the team from Matanzas. These were tough tickets because it was the play-offs. The Cuban Baseball League plays during our winter because it is the rainy season in the summer. Our tour guide was able to get a few tickets and they were a whopping three dollars. We were also right behind home plate.
We left the hotel and jumped into a taxi. It just happened to be a pink Chevy Impala convertible.
The driver was so excited for us because we were going to see the Leones of Havana in play-off baseball. We drove through the streets of Havana en route to the Estadio Latinoamerica and you can tell this was going to be something different. As we got closer to the stadium, everything was decked out in the Blue and White of the Industriales. The throngs of people that were headed towards the stadium were cheering and dancing and a lot of them had musical instruments with them and the ever present vuvezela.
We were dropped off and we got in line. We had no idea where we were going because nothing is really marked. This stadium is old and I mean old. We were told that there are no concessions. No beer, no hot dogs, just baseball. While waiting in line to get in, vendors were hawking homemade snacks.
We entered the stadium through the left field bleachers. We walked up the steps that lead to the walkway around the stadium and the first thing we noticed was a section of nothing but military troops. The second thing that we noticed was the noise level. It was 45 minutes before game time and the stadium was pretty much packed. The stadium holds close to 60,000 people and I think that 59,900 people were already seated. There were salsa bands playing, there was reggaeton blaring over the PA system and everyone was on their feet dancing.
We looked around and we could see that there were police officers every few feet and we could also see a section all in red. Those were the Matanzas' supporters. The police were surrounding their section, just in case anyone got any bright ideas.
After the Cuban National Anthem, the Havana team took the field and the noise was incredible. A cultural thing that we learned is that when play starts, you park your butt in a seat. People very politely ask you to sit down and it is just done. When action happens, everyone stands up. When play started, every fan was on every pitch and everything Industriales did was met with an ovation. The first Industriales batter walked and the crowd stood up in unison and roared. The excitement was incredible. When a foul ball would go into the seats, I was expecting a rush of fans to attack the new found souvenir. Instead one or two fans would walk over to the ball and pick it up and proceed to throw it back on the field. We asked the locals about this and they said that the league can't afford to lose balls.
What you don't realize is that the Cuban League can not use American baseballs because of the embargo. The Cubans receive their baseballs from China. They don't use any American made bats because of the embargo. American baseball products will not be on the field. I can almost guarantee that their equipment is sub par to what our MLB players use.
Just watching the starting pitcher for Havana warm-up, I knew I was in for a treat. Frank Montieh was throwing hard and his ball had some movement. His catcher, Frank Morejon was extremely animated to watch. He had no problem walking halfway to the pitcher's mound with his hands up and scream something at Montieh. They definitely did not have a communication problem. The defense behind Montieh was as smooth as silk. Juan Carlos, the second baseman and Rayko Olivares, the shortstop, played their positions effortlessly. When they would field ground balls, they would be so fundamentally sound and there were no tosses to first. They would fire the ball.
Two players for the Havana team really stood out. Havana's first basemen, Alexander Malleta and the center fielder, Yoandri Urgelles. Malleta is 6'2", 210 pounds. Known to the crowd as cinco cinco, 55. When he came to the plate, you could tell that this guy was big and not steroid big. When he swung, he put a hurt on the baseball. What was extremely impressive was his fielding. He was so agile and quick. One inning, he dove to his right to snag a shot and he was on his feet in no time and made the put out himself.
Urgelles was a phenomenal center fielder with a cannon for an arm. In one inning, Mantanzas had a man on first and their batter crushed one to deep centerfield. Urgelles got on his horse and made the catch on the warning track. (Dead centerfield is 408 feet away) Urgelles set himself and threw a laser to second base. Mantanzas wasn't even thinking of tagging up. That was the respect they had for Urgelles' arm.
One thing that really stood out was the way every ball player hustled on every play. When they would throw the ball around the horn, they would really zip it. They had an interesting way of going around the horn, it was almost like they were seeing who would drop the ball. The catcher would fire it to first, first to third, third to second, second to short, short to second, second to short, short to second, second to third, third to first and first would fire the ball to a streaking short who was in full sprint to the pitchers mound. Once he received it, he would toss it to the pitcher. Even the batboy would sprint to pick up a bat or collect a piece of equipment from a player standing on second.
We learned from the locals that all of the ballplayers are paid the same. No one gets more money because they are a better ballplayer. Interesting.
We learned from the locals that the Victor Mesa, the manager for the Matanzas team, was a Cuban baseball player and Olympic Gold Medalist. His nickname is "El Loco" and he is a baseball legend. His antics make Ozzie Guillen look subdued. While the line-ups were being brought to the umpires, Mesa (wearing all red) got into an argument with the Havana manager. Over what? Who knows, he is known for just arguing. As you will notice, the umpires just stand back. I guess in Cuba it's "Victor being Victor.
When Victor Mesa decides that he needs to go make a visit to the mound, watch out. He jumps out of the dugout and while sprinting to the mound, he is screaming at his pitcher. When he gets to the mound, Victor Mesa berates his pitcher. If he is going to remove the pitcher, he grabs the pitchers arm and yanks the ball from him and with a wave of his hand the pitcher sprints from the mound and into the dugout. We witnessed this on a few trips to the mound.
I already said that the Cubans have a passion for a number of things but I failed to mention that one of their passions is arguing. Early in the game, one of Matanzas' light hitting players hit a double. The ball boy jumped out of the dugout and sprinted to the tossed bat. At the same time the Havana manager jumped from his dugout and sprinted towards home plate. An argument began over the legality of the baseball bat. Mesa was arguing, the umpires were arguing, Industriales' manager was arguing and the fans were screaming. This argument took one hour and the final result was the bat was considered legal.
The game remained tied until the bottom of the eighth when Industriales scored two runs and eventually won the game 4-2.
The game was exciting, the fans incredible and the experience was once in a lifetime but I was a little saddened. I knew that a number of these ballplayers will never be seen by the world because of their situation. I also knew that a number of these ballplayers would be superstars in Major Leagues. We have been lucky to see a number of great Cuban ballplayers who have defected but there are so many more.
I did come away with a new found passion for the game of baseball (bought a Brooklyn Dodgers hat in honor of my father), the Cuban League (bought a Industriales hat) and a new found passion for my team.
The trip was definitely an educational experience.