Professional Baseball in Cuba
An American in Baseball-Crazed Cuba
A friend of mine recently made a trip to Havana in part to see a professional baseball game, but he got the surprise of his life when the local Cubans asked him to play in their baseball game the next day. This is Anthony’s recap of that game and the next day when he got a chance to play the game he loves with other people that love the game of baseball. He asked me to print it here and I gladly agreed to publish his unique and moving story.
by Bob Bentz
Habana, Cuba – Along with my Cuban host from the casa (a “casa” is a private home that hosts tourists), we walked from Habana Vieja (Old Havana) up the street to the Parque Central where the taxis would be waiting for the tourists. For 10 pesos, we got the ride from what is the old capitol district to Estadio Latino Americano.
Socialism in Baseball
Upon being dropped off at the back of the stadium behind home plate, we were greeted by a large billboard that was signed by Castro. We all know of the Castro’s love for baseball so this did not seem out of the ordinary.
Our guide walked us up to an office that was attached to the stadium and purchased the boletas (tickets) that my girlfriend and I would need to go to the game. The tickets were a small square piece of paper that allowed us entrance to the stadium. The cost of the ticket was three pesos each (a little more than $3 USA or Canadian) and I got ticket number 00169 so I assume that I was the 169th foreigner to enter the stadium that night. He then walked to another area where he purchased his ticket for the equivalent of 12 cents. Even in baseball there are two different monetary systems in Cuba. The foreigners pay one price and the citizens pay another, because one thing that Castro would be sure to subsidize is the highest level of baseball in the country.
Take Me Out to the Ballgame
Once entering the stadium, it looked very much like any American stadium. I was told that the seating capacity was in excess of 50,000 which seemed a stretch, but tonight I would say the attendance was closer to 10,000 at least at the start of the game. In the outfield, I saw nine people sitting in the home run territory down the left field line, but none around the other parts of the outfield. I’m not sure how those fans got there, because I was not able to walk to the outfield area. The lack of fans in the outfield made it easier to read the Revolucion statements that were present in both right and left field.
There was no assigned seating; festival seating was the way it worked. And, since we were in just before the first pitch, we could sit anywhere but in the very lowest section. The lowest section was reserved for VIP’s or people who knew somebody that worked at the stadium. My new Cuban friend lamented that he should have called his friend Vladimir to reserve us seats in the lower section, but he was so busy that day that he didn’t think about it.
He asked if I wanted to sit behind home plate, but I said that I prefer to not look through the screen so we scoped out three seats on the lower third base side. Those seats were about 75% full, but I spotted four apparently open seats together in the second row just beyond the screen. We walked down to those prime seats only to find that the actual seats were missing! No wonder they were available. My friend joked that this would probably not happen in Yankee Stadium.
One thing was for sure. Arriving early is a requirement. If the lower and mid-level seats are filled, you are forced to sit in the upper levels and the stadium has not gotten around to installing the seats in the upper levels yet. So, the fans just sit on the concrete steps or stand for the game.
A kind man who seemed like a regular fan motioned that there were seats available next to him. I’m sure that he recognized from our pale skin color that we were foreigners and the Cuban people just always seem to want to help outsiders.
The seats were unique in that they were right in the row in front of a statue. The group of regulars seated in the front of the statue told me in Spanish about the story of the statue’s origins. Apparently, the gentleman who sat there regularly was a huge Cuban baseball fan and led the entire stadium in cheers. For his dedication and loyalty, when he passed away a few years ago, the team has enshrined him there forever. The statue took up about six prime seats – another example of something that would never happen in a capitalist society.
There were vendors coming through the stands at night, but they didn’t appear to work for the team. They were locals who simply brought cans of soda and popcorn to the game.
One vendor, in fact, was a woman about 80-years-old; most women don’t age well in Cuba given the hot sun and the lack of lotion, especially those that have been around a while like this spunky gal.
Underneath the stadium were the larger concession stands selling things like “perros caliente” (hot dogs). It all kind of looked like a flea market with actual dogs roaming freely around the food. Clearly, there’s no FDA at work in Havana.
My local friend went and bought the food, because he paid a lot less for it than I would have given that he had the local citizen currency and not the turista CUC money.
The fried sweet potatoes were my favorite. No beer is allowed in the stadium; would get way too rowdy I was told. The soft drinks were not Pepsi or Coca-Cola, but locally made TuKola. I am told, however, that you might find some rum in some of the fans’ cola cans.
If you wanted to go to the bano (bathroom), it was going to cost you. There were women camped out in front of the bathroom entrances and it looked like everybody was giving them a coin when they entered.
Again, they didn’t look like they were employees of the team, but locals making a few extra pesos for keeping the bathrooms clean. Although you couldn’t get a beer (much to my girlfriend’s chagrin), it is ok to smoke in the stands. More cigarettes were being smoked than Cuban cigars. I had forgotten how annoying cigarette smoke is at a sporting event.
Tonight’s game was the host Industriales de Habana versus La Isla. Cuban baseball is a bit unfair. That’s because there is no draft of the players and the athletes must play for the home team in the region where they grew up. As you can imagine, in a city of 3 million like greater Havana, this gives the Industriales a huge advantage over a small island team just off the coast of the main island of Cuba. Hence, why the Industriales are the New York Yankees times four of the Cuban Professional Baseball League.
One quick look at their past rosters and you can see why Industriales is so successful. Players such as current MLB stars Kendrys Morales and Yunel Escobar played for Industriales. Plus, retired greats such as Livan “El Duque” Hernandez (he is retired now, isn’t he?) and Rey Ordonez and a host of other greats that were probably equally tremendous, but never got the exposure given by Major League Baseball once wore the blue and white of Industriales.
The national anthem was played and all of the fans stood in complete silence, but did not remove their caps. Then, the Industriales took the field. The scoreboard was basic – a line score and totals for outs, strikes, and balls (in that order). The totals column for “runs” had a “C” on it, but the hits and errors were the same as American baseball designated by “H” and “E.” Most of the English words in baseball like outs do translate to Cuban baseball.
There were no pictures of the players on the screen; it wasn’t that sophisticated. No score cards. No yearbooks. Hence, I had no way to know the names of any of the players on the Industriales roster. And, of course, there was no advertising anywhere in the stadium or anywhere in Cuba for that matter.
I was told that the game was being televised, but I didn’t see any cameras. My guess is that there was only one camera and it was in the press box. The game was definitely on the radio as some of the avid fans next to us had their radios with them, but they were kind enough to be using ear buds so that not everybody had to listen to the game on radio.
The visiting team had its surnames on the back of the jerseys, but Industriales did not. I guess the locals don’t need to ask.
Cuba is on the metric system, but when it comes to baseball, it remains purely Americano. The outfield wall at Latino Americano was a standard 400 feet to dead center, 380 to the left and right, 345 in the power alleys, and 325 down the lines. Centerfield was even harder to hit it out with its higher, arching, outfield wall. Just outside of the stadium in left field was a large hotel painted in the blue color of the Industriales with its iconic script “I” painted on it. This building is home to the Industriales’ players and the visiting teams stay in the same building when they are in town.
Slow Down Rules
One of the interesting things that are different than American baseball is that the players jog from the dugout to their at bats. That, however, is the only speed up part of Cuban baseball. The games linger longer, because the pitching is not up to the level of MLB or even the minor leagues. It seemed to me in this small sample that the position players were much closer to MLB level than the pitchers were. All of the pitchers we saw seemed to have control problems. I might say that they were trying to nibble, but when they didn’t throw strikes consistently on 3-0 pitches, you have to say its control that is the problem. This makes, in part, for longer games.
Also, the umpires don’t do anything to speed up the game. Players consistently step out of the box for lots of reasons – mostly, it seems, to adjust their elbow and forearm equipment. In some cases, they forgot to wear it and had to call an older guy who has a bad leg out of the dugout to bring it to them. Arguments are common and the managers get as much time as they want to plead their case with the men (or woman) in blue.
One tip of the blue cap to Cuban baseball, however. In a country that seems to have stopped progressing in the 1950’s, there was a female umpire at third base. Very progressive.
Then, there’s the around the horn after an out is made. The catcher gets involved and every infielder seems to touch the ball at least two times. Even after the around the horn, the pitcher will sometimes toss the ball back and forth with the third baseman a few times before working on the next hitter.
The only souvenir I could have bought was this Cuban baseball guide book, but I didn’t since it was from 4 seasons ago.
And, the most interesting slow down rule that I saw occurred after the fifth inning when a bit of a halftime occurred. At the end of the fifth, the umpires retired to the dugouts to have a drink and the starting players walked along the side of the stadium and met the fans in the front rows. Some even posed for pictures, but I didn’t see any signing autographs. The reserves went out on the field and ran a little, swung some bats, and played a bit of catch to keep loose. I’m sure there are no batting cages under the stands like in MLB parks. The team grounds crew came onto the field and repainted the base lines and the batter’s box. Another crew member worked on the pitcher’s mound and the batters boxes. Many of the fans took the opportunity to visit the bathrooms or grab some food and drink underneath the stands. The halftime took about ten minutes until the umpires re-emerged from the home team’s dugout to re-start the game in the top of the sixth inning.
The World’s Best Baseball Fans
When it comes to the game itself, the fans are into it; very into it. It would take a World Series or playoff game for American fans to be so into a game. When the La Isla leadoff hitter took a 1-0 pitch that the umpire called a ball, the home fans erupted in protest. It was the second pitch of the game!
And, the fans don’t have much patience with poor play either. The Industriales’ starting pitcher did not have a good start and gave up four runs in the first four innings and it could have been worse. He did not have good control and was getting hit around by a much weaker team. When he was taken out of the game in the fourth inning, the fans booed loudly as he walked off the field. Those boos would have made Mets’ or Phillies’ faithful proud.
The fans, however, are good fans that really understand the game of beisbol and they certainly respect the opponents. When one of the La Isla players tapped an infield hit in the top of the third, the entire La Isla team came on the field to congratulate him and the Industriales’ fans stood up and cheered for the visiting player’s accomplishment. Of course, I had no idea what was going on and there was no scoreboard or announcer to tell me what had just happened so I had to consult my new friends seated next to me who explained to me (I think) that it was his 1000th career hit. After the La Isla players left the field, the bench of the Industriales emptied to also congratulate the player. The ball was given to him by the umpires. I was impressed by the great sportsmanship.
The small crowd was loud and 100% partisan. I doubt you’d have found a single La Isla fan in the stands given the cost of travel from an island to the capital. I saw many MLB caps and jerseys in the stands. The Phillies, Red Sox, White Sox, Angels, and Dodgers were represented on caps. The Yankees, however, had the most Cuban fans followed closely by the Marlins. I saw jerseys for Yasiel Puig, Josh Beckett, even Kobe Bryant.
The fans didn’t have much good to say until the Industriales fought back to tie the game in the bottom of the fifth 4-4. That’s when the organized cheering began. One guy seemed to be leading the cheers on the first base side. When somebody praised his efforts and said he deserved to take the place of the fan with the statue dedicated to him, the cheerleader said no and paid deference the Industriales’ and Cuba’s greatest fan. He said that he was not in his league as a cheerleader.
On the game tying single, the batter rounded first too wide and a La Isla infielder threw to first to nail him on a close play for the third out of the inning and the rally ending play. Although I thought he was out, the fans obviously did not and yelled the Spanish version of “Son of a Bitch” at the first base umpire. So much for respecting authority.
The Cuban people love Americans. Because not many Americans travel to Cuba (it is estimated that about 60,000 travel illegally each year not including Beyonce and Jay-Z), most Cubans assumed we were Canadians. They found out I was from the United States when one asked to borrow my pen and noticed that the pen was inscribed with an American business. From then on, they wanted to ask my opinion of players like Yasiel Puig, Kendrys Morales, and Benito Santiago.
We talked a bit about the World Baseball Classic and I asked if they had watched the Classic games to which there was a resounding “yes.” The Classic means a lot to the Cuban fans and although they are often critical of their government, they do love their country. I could see how disappointed they were that the Japanese had won the first two Classics and the Dominicans won the last time. They consider baseball to be their game and would love to prove it on the world stage.
They said they were frustrated that they could not field their best team in the last Classic with so many players like the aforementioned Morales not being able to participate since they play in MLB. More than one said “if only we could have all of our guys to play together.”
Contrary to what you might think, in 2013, the government began allowing Cuban players to legally leave the country to play for teams in Mexico and Japan, but they are still not legally permitted to play in the United States. Nevertheless, there is certainly a growing concern that more and more Cuban players will start playing overseas in the future and defecting to the highest paying league in the USA or Canada will become even more commonplace.
I asked if they thought that the Cuban born MLB players could play in the next Classic and they said that they didn’t think so. All Cuban players would love to play and represent their country,” they said, “but, the government would never allow it. They want to keep the Cuban team pure. It’s stupid. We could win if we had all of our best players. I can’t blame the players for going to play in America. They make lots of money there and they won’t pay them like that here.”
It seems as though the pitchers throw a lot more than American pitchers do. Since there are no bullpens either in the outfield or in foul territory, the pitchers simply warmed up on the side of the field. And, they continued to throw lightly on the side of the field even when their team was at bat. If they weren’t throwing, they were doing the towel drill made famous by Cubs pitcher Mark Prior and Braves’ pitching coach Tom House. One interesting note was that the catchers had their backs to the plate just beyond the dugouts with no guards. A line drive foul ball could have struck the catchers right in the back side. Maybe that’s why the Industriales carry four catchers.
You won’t see any Louisville Sluggers on the field since the USA doesn’t trade with Cuba. Most of the equipment is Japanese made and mostly Mizuno. I did see some Cuban baseball gloves being sold around Havana, but they were made by the same artisans that made belts and Cuban hats and they were very stiff and not of the quality that would be needed by any player beyond the age of 12.
My new Cuban baseball friends were asking me whether I knew certain Cuban baseball stars and I was embarrassed to answer that I didn’t know any of them. I wish I could have answered differently, but I simply have had no exposure to Cuban baseball players other than watching World Baseball Classic and Olympic games.
I asked them who were the best players on the Industriales team and I was told that the catcher, third baseman, and first baseman were all part of the Cuban national team. But, they added, the first baseman had the night off and they didn’t know why. They also said that the La Isla first baseman was very good and probably should have made the national team over the Industriales first baseman, but he did not. Politics.
I asked if any of the Industriales pitchers were on the national team and the response was that I can probably see that the answer to that was no given the poor outing of the starting pitcher. “We need more pitching. It is our weakest position,” said the gentleman. Who doesn’t need more pitching?
Two Industriales players did indeed seem MLB ready to me. Third baseman Yulieski Gourriel, who wore an interesting jersey number (#01), is a long, lean, and athletic looking #3 hitter with a sweet and powerful swing in Havana’s lineup. It seemed like the pitchers were always pitching around him. He also seemed to be the crowd favorite as several fans wore his unique number jersey.
Another player that impressed me was Lisban Correa (#58). Correa was bit stockier than Gourriel, but also had a great swing. I’m not suggesting you draft Correa in your fantasy league just yet, but if his name comes up in the future, you’ll know where you heard about him first.
Gourriel is another story. He’s going to be the next big name to come play in MLB. If your fantasy league allows it, pick him up. You may have a second half stud if all things work out.
For a relatively small country, there are a lot of teams in the Cuban professional baseball league which does water down the talent a bit. Plus, it doesn’t really attract players from outside its own country since the pay is so low (about 100 pesos per month where the average wage is 30 pesos), so all of the players are essentially home grown. This makes for a disparity of talent and the top players are easy to spot.
Some of the players seemed to be of independent league quality and others were Double-A with a few aforementioned stars that I think could play in The Show. Not all of the players seemed to be athletic enough to be Major League quality. Some didn’t have the speed and some players, like La Isla’s shortstop could easily be labeled “good glove, no stick.”
Industriales fought back from a 4-0 deficit and tied the game in the bottom of the fifth. A long two RBI double to right center made the game 4-3 and on every run the entire bench emptied out to congratulate the scoring players. I think we saw a bit of that with the Latin teams in the World Baseball Classic.
Both teams had chances after the fifth, but strong pitching shut down any rallies. With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Industriales put a runner on third with two out. Industriales sent up a pinch hitter, #55, and the guy down the aisle from me said that he was older now, but had played in the first two WBC’s for Cuba. It was at this moment that La Isla made a pitching change that you wouldn’t normally see in American baseball. It removed its right-handed reliever and brought in a lefty pitcher to pitch to the aging right-handed hitting star. I guess it was a good move, even if not playing the percentages, because the pinch hitter whiffed to end the threat.
With two out in the bottom of the ninth, Industriales came within a few feet of a miraculous walk off homer. The hitter belted a shot, but to the deepest part of the ballpark. It caromed off the outfield wall just above the 410 sign in dead center field.
Industriales did win the game with a walk, sacrifice (both teams sacrificed religiously with nobody out and a runner on first), and then a base hit in the home tenth. The fans were happy now and could go home with a win.
If you want to read more about the next day when we had the chance to play baseball with a group of Cuban men, click here for that story.