In theory, taking in a professional level baseball game while visiting Cuba should be a pretty straightforward. After all, the sport is ubiquitous in the country with pick-up games being played in virtually every park, square and street at all times of the day or night.
In practice, “Going to a Cuban baseball game is always a huge adventure” according to American , author of the definitive A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (MacFarland, 2007) as well as numerous other books and articles on the subject reflecting his intense passion for the sport. “It is part of its charm.”
What Bjarkman means by this is that it one thing to want to go and see a game it is another thing entirely trying to figure when, where or if a game is scheduled to be played at any given time of the year. There is no guide in the local newspapers, the national baseball federation website is often not online and/or difficult to navigate and game schedules are often set very close to the beginning of the season (and then re-set mid-season). Even the basics such as to determining the actual time a game is set to start can be a challenge (televised games are often played at night while others take place during the day).
Fortunately with the help of Bjarkman and a website he contributes to called Baseball de Cuba (www.baseballdecuba.com), all of this is getting a little easier to decipher for the Cuban baseball’s uninitiated or novice fan.
Without a doubt, baseball is Cuba’s national sport and the natural talent of the players runs deep. So deep, in fact, that the Cuban star baseball players are regularly sought out and solicited by professional leagues throughout the world including MLB.
For Cubans, access to see their teams play borders on “a national right”, according to Bjarkman. In the island’s current ‘professional’ league (professional baseball was actually banned here at the beginning of the revolution) there are sixteen teams that correspond with the country’s sixteen provinces.
Often the stadiums are within waking distance of most of the city’s residents making them very accessible. Admission prices for locals are an equivalent to a mere 17 cents while foreigners are charged 3 CUCs ($3 USD) but this higher price normally gives access the best seats in the house. The games are usually the highlight of any given city’s social activity so the games tend toward a carnival atmosphere with fresh food hawked on the periphery (go for the pork sandwiches! They are spectacular!) with disco-pounding pop-up dance clubs for the younger set also attracting a lot of attention.
The baseball season begins in late August with occasional breaks for the Cuban National team’s international tournaments and culminates with the league’s playoffs beginning in early March. At the mid-point of the season (in December) the sixteen-team roster gets whittled down to eight teams with the top four teams heading eventually to the playoffs.
It should be noted that the league’s main purpose is to train players to play with the Cuban national team who are the country’s pride and joy. Sometimes the national team’s exhibition games or International tournaments are played on the island and this serves to increase the number of games that can be seen.
Bjarkman suggests that visitors to Cuba who hope to take in a ball game should pay close attention to baseballdecuba.com for details on game schedules and news related to the league including standings. Even with this information, the intrepid fan will still have to dig around once on the island for confirmation on a game’s times. “Ask the door man of your hotel or your waiter or barman to confirm the time of the game as these are often only set the week before depending if they will be televised or not. I have heard of people arranging their schedules and transport to take in an evening game only to arrive to hear it took place in that afternoon!”
Bjarkman also recommends tracking down a keen local fan to act as your guide to the game. This might be your favorite cab driver that is willing to drop everything to take in a game and show you the ropes. This can prove to be invaluable as even the simple task of purchasing a ticket can prove to be daunting for a traveler (no advance sales, by the way, but fear not: rarely, if ever, are the games sold out). Even following the game itself can be a challenge as most scoreboards ceased functioning decades ago and the public address system is usually of unintelligible quality. And be careful of whom you cheer for. If you choose to root for the visiting team be prepared to be on the receiving end of some verbal abuse. You will soon notice that your fellow fans are passionate to the extreme about their team beyond anything you have ever experienced before.
For more about Peter C. Bjarkman’s past and upcoming books on Cuban baseball, visit his website at http://www.bjarkman.com and for details about Cuban baseball schedules, statistics and news visit http://www.baseballdecuba.com.
A.J. Twist is a Montreal-based travel writer and photographer.