Over the years, many Cubans have played in the Major Leagues, but recently the MLB has been rocked by high profile players who learned their chops on their home island then defected amid dramatic stories. In 2013 it was Yasiel Puig blasting for the LA Dodgers and this summer José Abreu was named rookie of the year playing first base for the Chicago White Sox.
Although he departed Cuba, Abreu really showcases the Cuban ballgame. He set a Cuban home run record in 2010–2011 and was named league MVP.
After Abreu defected from the Cienfuegos baseball team in August, 2013 that team dropped out of contention, leaving the top spot in the Serie Nacional wide open. In the past years, Havana’s powerhouse team, Industriales, and the Matanzas Cocodrilos have been battling at the top of the standings. When I got a chance to take in an Industriales game in Matanzas, I unhesitatingly leapt at the opportunity.
It proved an even better idea than I might have hoped since seeing a game in the provinces is reportedly considerably more exciting than in jaded Havana.
Matanzas, called the City of Bridges for its 17 bridges over three rivers, is a modest coastal city of 150,000 about 95 km east of Havana and 40 km west of Varadero. It is a baseball mecca and its hallowed Estadio Victoria de Giron throbs with every game in a city where baseball is both a national sport and obsession. The sense of Cocodrilos pride is genuine; the stars of the team are real hometown heroes (for the most part the players for each of the Cuba’s 16 provincial teams hail from that province.)
The Cuban baseball facilities are, not surprisingly, not what you might see in a major US city, nor are the prices. My ticket was 3CUC’s = $3 while my Cuban hosts paid 1 peso nacional, the equivalent of about 5 cents. but the quality of baseball certainly is on a par or close. Cubans take baseball very seriously and it’s no surprise that their players who come up through their well-supported baseball system, then switch to the Japanese or North American leagues, often become big-league stars.
The party starts early outside the stadium with food and more food available at the food carts that surround the stadium. Continuing inside, the stands are serviced by vendors with soaring stacks of fresh pork sandwiches, towering trays of empanadas and lots of peanuts, popcorn and other universal baseball snacks. Again the prices are shocking to anyone who has ever enjoyed (or not) an $8 bleacher hotdog in a MLB venue. Our sandwiches came hot off the plancha and cost about 50 cents.
But back to the ball field which is lush, smooth and perhaps the only aspect where the Matanzas game resembled the majors. In our second row seats we were close enough to hear the players’ conversations; there was a lot of friendly kibitzing and handshaking between the players and Industriales fans in blue shirts (and in some cases blue fright wigs) who journeyed from the capital to see them.
The hometown fans in red Crocs’ colours never stopped partying and cheering, except briefly to eat more snacks. Even the most boisterous fans in Boston or the Bronx pale compared to the enthused legions in Matanzas. The baseball was brilliant, the mood in the stadium effervescent and the whole experience a highlight for this baseball fan.
photos by AJ Twist