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Travel Image: Cuba
Photo: Mike Wang
Travel Image: Cuba
Photo: Mike Wang

Cuba: A Whole New Ballgame
By Jason Rezaian

Cuba’s not that different. They like baseball and fast food just like us, I thought, as I walked around Havana on my first afternoon there, watching young kids play stickball and pretty teenage girls in spandex picking at fried chicken.

I had been to Cuba several years earlier, but it was already clear that life on the island had changed considerably since my last trip. Touching down at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport, I could already see some of the transformation. For one thing, the flight was packed with Americans yucking it up and drinking Cuba Libres. On that first journey the few Americans on my flight, and the handful I ran into on the island, were all walking around with a perpetual look of wonder coupled with a glance over their shoulders, knowing they weren’t supposed to be there, and pondering how a nation so different than our own could exist right around the corner.

Deplaning into the brand new terminal, I felt like I was in a modern Spanish airport dotted with little cafes and fancy duty-free boutiques. I wasn’t prepared for that, but tourism has become a multi-billion dollar annual business for Castro and his cronies.

I knew that one thing would be the same though, baseball. It couldn’t have changed, since so few tourists to Cuba are American, and probably fewer still, Japanese. There would have been no earthly reason for Castro to give Cuban baseball a facelift.

In May of 1999 a team of Cuban all-stars came to America to play the Baltimore Orioles, and I was there. Three things struck me that day. First, the Cuban guys could play. Their middle infielders turned some of the slickest double plays I’ve ever seen, and they won the game with little effort and a lot of grace. Second, was the sense of awe in their eyes: the scoreboard and jumbo-tron that replayed their every movement, the throngs of people gathered to watch, some to support them in their cause, but others who hate everything they represented, and many more who just came to watch a ball game. But it was the uniforms, bright red and brand-new, that impressed me the most. This is not the way these guys usually look for a game, I thought, although I had no idea what they were actually accustomed to.

So I decided that the first thing I’d do when I arrived would be to find out what baseball in Cuba is all about. What better way to get into the spirit of the island than to check out a ball game? I had never read a description of Cuban baseball before. Most guidebooks told of the “possibility” of seeing a game, or referred to it as some esoteric ritual, uninteresting to the tourist masses. I suppose that’s because most people writing guidebooks on Cuba either aren’t American or are not addressing an American audience. I knew better. Every afternoon in Havana’s main park, only steps away from the nation’s capital, a replica of our Congress building, men of all ages gather in a place known as the Esquina Caliente (Hot Corner) to discuss and argue all matters relevant to the game. Flanked by vintage American cars from an era long gone, it’s here that I first realized that Cuba is a kind of parallel universe; diametrically opposed to all things American except the pillars of our civilization: cars, baseball, fast food and dollars.

I decided to check out an exhibition game at the Estadio Latinoamericacano, between Cienfuegos and Sancti Spiritus, Cuba’s version of the Milwaukee Brewers versus the Detroit Tigers. The stadium is removed from the central part of Havana, so I grabbed a cab from the Esquina Caliente with a friend named Alfredo. We rode in a sky-blue Chevy from the mid-1950’s that coughed and stalled the whole ride to the ballpark, arriving a few minutes before game time. Upon entering the stadium, I immediately noticed the foul poles, lit up in bright, neon pink. Cuba, above all else, is a colorful place from the spandex hugging the butts of ladies aged six to sixty, to the foul poles in the world’s oldest ballpark.

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