Despite conflicting ideologies and fifty years of efforts to isolate Cubans from Americans, cultures converge when it comes to baseball, Cuba’s national sport.
Cuban baseball borders on fanaticism. To get a taste of the fervor one only has to venture to the heart of Havana’s Parque Central, opposite El Capitolio (the Capitol building), and into the esquina caliente (the “hot corner”). Here, daily, hundreds of Cubans ranging in ages from their teens to their eighties gather to discuss, argue and debate the best and worst of Cuban, as well as American, baseball. To an outsider, this social custom may seem overly passionate, verging on the brink of physical violence. Onlookers converge around the animated exchange, some piping in, others laughing. You might even see a few wearing Major League caps. The energy and passion are palpable and infectious. No serious hurt feelings however; there’s always the next day’s round of debates.
From the hustle and bustle streets of Havana to more rural settings in towns like Viñales and Trinidad, Cubans embrace the sport of baseball even more than the universal sport of soccer. Kids of all ages play baseball everywhere, from street corners, apartment buildings, parks, alleyways, and every nook and cranny that can provide the faintest semblance of a baseball diamond.
Because of Cuba’s perpetual lack of material goods, the country’s children and young adults creatively make do with anything on hand to play the sport they so love. Flattened cardboard boxes become bases and gloves. Nothing can stop them from playing.
In Havana, the local “Industriales” team are gods. They are the New York Yankees of Cuban baseball. Whether celebrated or loathed, there’s no getting around the fact that team Industriales is the island’s most successful franchise.
All around Havana, graffitied walls speckled with the Industriales team logo are reminders of the passion and love for the ballclub. An apartment building viewed over the left—field fence of Havana’s storied Estadio Latinoamericano is Instustriales blue with a gothic “I” running the length of its dozen stories. If Havana’s Industriales are the Yankees of Cuba, Havana’s other team, the Metropolitanos, are the Philadelphia Phillies. Cuban baseball bans the trading and sale of player: each player plays with his province’s team – 16 in total. The only movement of players between teams is from Industriales to Metros, with such transfers designed to keep Industriales competitive.
The game was introduced to the island in the 1860s and professional baseball started there in 1878, less than a decade after its start in the US. Eighty—seven Cubans, including Adolfo Luque, Minnie Minoso, Tony Perez and Bert Campaneris, played in the major leagues before the Cuban Revolution.
Stadiums date from the 1970’s and most seat only a few thousand. Teams show up only an hour before game time, dressed in their uniforms, many of them carrying their own equipment. Some rituals are unfamiliar to American fans, such as the catcher and hitter shaking hands before the first pitch of the game and the umpires being served drinks by young women in mid—game. There are no scorecards, no advertising and no souvenirs. Just the game.
Cuban baseball has survived a Revolution, the pilfering of its players (by the majors) and less than stellar playing conditions. Long live Cuban Beisbol!