The Gringo would sidle quietly up to the practice … extend his hand with a shiny new North American baseball, then just as quietly walk away.
Suddenly, rising up out of years of idle conversations and lazy intention, we are confronted by a genuine opportunity to go to Cuba. Even more suddenly, with a fleeting discussion in which spontaneity abandons all regard for expense, inconvenience, or timing, we have decided to go. It is several months before the great opening announced by the Obama Administration in December 2014, which revives our long-standing, deep-seated anxiety to visit before Walmart gets there.
While anticipating new and exotic geography, food, music, politics and digital emptiness, I learn of a guy who once visited Cuba and took with him a few new baseballs. In the afternoons, he would stroll the neighborhoods, finding kids playing on parched, dusty fields; kids begloved with tattered mitts, playing their best game with balls wrapped, re-wrapped and wrapped again with tape. The Gringo would sidle quietly up to the practice, to the adult watching over it, extend his hand with a shiny new North American baseball, then just as quietly walk away. Unassuming, no thanks required. Weeks before our trip departs, it is my birthday. At the top of my list: baseballs, and I get ten.
The stage is almost set. We are a group of eleven traveling to Cuba for a writers’ workshop. There is only one fervent baseball fan among them: Larry is a lifelong Chicago White Sox fan, proud that his team is among the pioneers in bringing Cuban ball players to Major League Baseball. There are five Cubans on the roster for the opening of the 2015 season.
Suspicion by Cuban Customs that anything brought into the country in unusual numbers must certainly be headed for the black market drives me to solicit baseball smugglers. Despite the group’s collective, misguided indifference to the beauty of the game, all are enthusiastic co-conspirators in the baseball plot, and when we meet in Miami, each takes a ball to stow away in their luggage. Over our first dinner in Cuba the next evening, in the lovely 1514 city of Sancti Spíritus, balls reappear and roll across the table back to me.
Once we settle into our 11 days in Cuba, here is where the ten baseballs go:
Béisbol número 1
Between the American traveler and Cuba lie many layers of licenses and permits, agencies and bureaucracies, fossilized artifacts of the now-long-gone Cold War. Some lie on the US side, some on the Cuban side, but they color and encumber every prospect for an activity. Lester is one of our Cuban guides: twenty-something, athletic, wearing a sports jersey. I explain that, after we have toured the innovative community organic garden, I’ll just walk back to town. I want to locate the civic ball park on the walk to the hotel. He quickly points out that he is a pitcher for his university team, out right now with an injured left forearm, which he massages as he explains. I’m now carrying two or three baseballs with me wherever I go. Lester gets the first one.
Béisbol número 2
It’s damned hot, but we’re out walking one late afternoon along the boulevard closed off to traffic ten years ago and reserved for pedestrians. There’s a guy with baseball cap and bat as props dances to music spilling out of a nearby boom box. Dancing for pesos…or baseballs. I toss him a ball. He catches it without dropping a beat, step or twirl of the bat — and tips his cap in return.
Béisbol número 3
We have brought with us from home in Portland, Oregon, stories about the Peter Pan flights that took kids out of Cuba after the Revolution. Leonie, born and raised in Sancti Spíritus, was on one these flights. Her sister’s best friend still lives here and we make it our quest to find her: Leticia Orsini, music professor, now retired. We know the street where La Profesora lives, we know the name of the hotel she lives near, and we know that everyone on the street will know how to help us get closer to where she lives. It takes three inquiries. She answers the door, sweeps us in with great hospitality and the stories begin. Like Cubans homes everywhere, the home is full of Leticia’s family: daughter Eleana; granddaughter, Kristina; and great-grandson, Franco, age 4. Franco, many years away from his first baseball game, gets a ball.
Between the American traveler and Cuba lie many layers of licenses and permits, agencies and bureaucracies, fossilized artifacts of the now-long-gone Cold War.
A boy, six or seven years old, walks the street, clutching a stick. Is it just a stick? Does it double as a bat when the neighborhood kids gather in the cool of the evening and lengthening shadows to play ball in the street? Or does he carry it to keep street dogs at bay?
Béisbol número 4
It’s two days after Lester gets the first ball. I have been successful in my quest to find the city ball park, where two officious women tell me I will have to speak with the Commissar of Internal Affairs at the office on the plaza downtown before I can go giving away any Yanqui baseballs. “You dumb shit,” I think, compulsively — if only mentally — forthright. But with never any intention negotiating permission, I am back two days later looking for the kids who practice there every afternoon from 4 p.m. to sunset. For some reason – perhaps my charm, perhaps my quest, perhaps so she can get out of writing class – Claudia, our fixer on the ground in Sancti Spíritus, accompanies me on my walk back to the park. By the time we get there, it’s pouring rain; no practice today. But the coach and a couple kids are there, hoping the weather might still clear. I hand the coach a ball. He beams and tells me I must come back tomorrow to watch their game.
Béisbol número 5
About 30 minutes’ drive from Sancti Spíritus is a small town that has taken Cuban resourcefulness to a broad municipal level. In a way reminiscent of the Mexican pueblitos with their signature artisan crafts in weaving or furniture or jewelry, it has turned the restoration of 1950s-vintage American cars into a civic enterprise. Cars that are barely more than a frame and a couple of fenders caressing four flat tires move from shop to shop for a chassis rebuilding, body work, painting, then detailing, upholstery and a final polishing. A car may take a year from start to finish, but at the end of its journey, its reincarnated self preens, gleaming in metallic splendor. Just before turning off the main road and crossing the tracks, we pass a ball field. It’s 10:30 in the morning, but the stands are full of hooting and hollering young guys. In the course of our stroll from one car shop to another, I slip away and dash off to the left field fence, whistle to the left fielder, who is tossing a ball to his counterpart in centerfield, as outfielders are wont to do between innings. It takes a few whistles, and in the meantime a neighbor strolling home with a bag of groceries has caught on to my scheme and pauses to watch with a smile. I finally catch the left fielder’s attention and throw him a ball. Yes, I still have something of an arm at 66. He picks up the ball in astonishment, smiles and waves before tossing it in to the third baseman, who also inspects it with surprise. Play resumes, and so does our tour of the car shops.
Béisbol número 6
Twenty minutes later we are walking the streets of town, on the way to a 1958 Chevy, just painted a gleaming black. Everything stripped, inside and out. The driver’s seat is a milk crate. A boy, six or seven years old, walks the street, clutching a stick. Is it just a stick? Does it double as a bat when the neighborhood kids gather in the cool of the evening and lengthening shadows to play ball in the street? Or does he carry it to keep street dogs at bay? Isaac, in our group, asks for a ball, then crosses the street and hands it to the boy, who quietly takes it and skips away. Turns out his mom is just a few houses down, has watched the whole affair and yells a ¡Gracias! down the street to us all. Then the kid does, too. He knows what to do; he was just momentarily stunned to see a string of gringos walking down his street who made a baseball appear.
Béisbol número 7
Clouds build through the entire next day, but rain doesn’t materialize on this afternoon and by the time I get back to the ball park, the kids are hard at practice. The coach from the day before gives me a smiling, acknowledging nod as he logs in his coach’s notebook the balls, strikes and hits of his young pitcher. The kids are 10-12 years old, initially puzzled by, but eventually oblivious to, my presence. Some are in t-shirts and jeans; one is decked out in the full red, white and blue uniform of the Cuban national team, with ball cap and wrap-around shades. I can’t tell whether they’re using the ball I presented the coach yesterday, though I think not: that they might be saving it for an actual game. I stroll down the third base line and drop a ball by the team dugout, a ball they won’t discover until practice is over and I’m long gone.
Cars that are barely more than a frame and a couple of fenders caressing four flat tires move from shop to shop … but at the end of its journey, its reincarnated self preens, gleaming in metallic splendor.
So the nation without a soccer team (baseball so clearly the superior sport) is glued to the semi-finals: the Isla de la Juventud Pirates battle the Matanzas Crocodiles, while the Ciego de Avila Tigers go up against the Granma Colts.
Béisbol número 8
As I’m leaving the ball park, cold in its concrete starkness, scorching in the afternoon sun, I pass by a couple dads, watching their kids at play. It is obvious that they have heard the story of my gift ball from the day before. They thank me; I pull out one more, with an Oye, hay una más – “Hey, here’s one more.” Another round of thanks as I take off and head back to town in search of an ice cream on what the Cuban Weather Service will declare to be the hottest March 26 on record in Sancti Spíritus, Cuba.
Béisbol número 9
On the way back to town, there’s a mom with a 6-year old son in her lap, both sitting in their doorway, watching life in the street go by as the afternoon starts to cool down. I pass them and wave, but a block later, turn back to get a photo. “May I?” I ask. She nods. I snap a few shots, then cross the street and plant a baseball in the niño’s tiny hand. Both smile, and another round of photos ensues.
We have just arrived in Havana, the second stay on our trip and where we will spend the last four nights. Uncertainty about our itinerary and schedule have hung over our travels the entire day. Would we have the time and interest to visit Finca Vigia, Lookout Farm, where Papa Hemingway spent so many of his last macho, alcoholic, Nobel Laureate years? In the end, we pull into the gateway to the estate, where we must pause to inquire about the logistics of our tour. Two 10-year-old kids and a mom are hanging out in the shade, the boys tossing a ball, waiting for the practice to begin. Our bus seems stuck for a moment, so I dash out with my last ball. This one is emblazoned with the logo and name of the Seattle Mariners – Los Marineros. I hand them the ball, explain that this ball is from my team, and take a photo of the final ball to go. In Cuba, it is the end of the winter baseball season. Los Gallos – the Roosters – of Sancti Spíritus have had a miserable season, long gone from the top of the league standings. So the nation without a soccer team (baseball so clearly the superior sport) is glued to the semi-finals: the Isla de la Juventud Pirates battle the Matanzas Crocodiles, while the Ciego de Avila Tigers go up against the Granma Colts. Moments before we board the plane for the flight back to Miami, the Tigers close out their advance to the finals.In a week it will be Opening Day for the 2015 Major League Baseball season in North America. There will be Cubans in unprecedented numbers playing on US teams, though, according to US State Department regulations, a Cuban ball player turning pro in the US must forego forever the right to return to his homeland and family. One can hope that some day the need to make such a cruel and heart-wrenching choice will evaporate in the changes coming as relations normalize between these two neighbors a legendary 90 miles apart. But in the meantime, there are ten new baseballs in Cuba, in the hands of young people who love their nation, adore the game, and have a sense of hope for the future unfelt by their parents and grandparents for half a century.
… According to US State Department regulations, a Cuban ball player turning pro in the US must forego forever the right to return to his homeland and family.