Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

A Beisbol Game in Havana, by Mike Zito

Scene from the big game.
Scene from the big game.
Mike Zito recently went on his first trip to Cuba. His goal was to attend a baseball game. Mission: Accomplished. Here’s the full report …
Last month I was on a Cuban cultural tour and stayed in the cities of Cienfuegos and Havana. Attending a beisbol game was not part of the tour but, for me, was a very high priority.  Although Cubans are very friendly and helpful people, getting a schedule or scheduling information in Havana for the Industriales or in Cienfuegos for the Elephantes proved to be a challenge.  Opinions differed on whether a team was home, on the road, had a day off or was playing a day or night game.  I began to understand a comment by a Cuban on our tour—giving facts to two Cubans can result in three different opinions.
As our tour was ending in Havana, I was becoming less optimistic about attending a game. The morning of my last day I was exchanging  American dollars for Cuban tourist currency (CUCs) at the Hotel Quenta Avenida. I mentioned my desire to attend a beisbol game to the young woman at the exchange window. She told me the Industriales were definitely playing Camaguey tonight at 7:15 at Estadio Latinoamericano in Cerro, Havana. I asked how she knew and she said her husband played for the Industriales. I verified the game with several other hotel employees.   There was, of course, some discrepancy about the starting time, but yes, they were playing tonight.  A cab was arranged for 6:30.
Antoyne Vasconcelos Alvarez, “chofer profesional” as his business card stated, arrived at the hotel around 6:15 for the 20-minute ride to the stadium. He was very friendly and spoke little English. His taxi was a small old Russian car that had a leaky windshield (it was raining) and smoke from the engine that seeped into the car. My window didn’t go up which helped the smoke situation. The car had no shock absorbers to speak of. If there was a seat belt, I couldn’t find it. However, the car had a  great sound system with a 10-inch video screen that ejected from the dashboard at the push of a button. The Dominican Republic music video was of very good quality featuring dancers that could rival Shakira. This more than made up for the leaky windshield, smokey engine and bumpy ride.
We arrived at the stadium at 6:30. Estadio Latinoamericano (Gran Esdadio del Cerro before Fidel ) was built in 1946 and holds 55,000 fans. Tonight  the Comaguay Ranchers would play the powerful Industriales Blue Lions, a team comparable to the Boston Red Sox or San Francisco Giants. Although admission was free before 2002, it was now 12 cents for locals. Foreign visitor seating was in back of home plate and cost more. No one was selling or collecting tickets so we walked in and sat down on the concrete seats. I chose to sit with Antoyne and the locals and we discussed beisbol in Cuba and the U.S. during the course of the 13-inning game.
The players took the field and the prerecorded Cuban National anthem played through crackling old speakers. The small press box with several people and a single TV camera came to life. The scoreboard displayed only the score and the teams that were playing. There was no announcer. Stray dogs meandered around the stands enjoying the event and looking for food. Vendors were selling small baggies of popcorn for a few cents. Smoking was allowed throughout the stadium, but beer was sold and consumed outside of the stadium. There was a conspicuous lack of advertising and the outfield walls were bare. There were no annoying revolving advertisements in back of home plate. Ads for Havana Club rum or Coheba cigars or anything else could not be seen anywhere. How unique and relaxing. This was all about baseball. After the game, Cuban players mingled with fans outside the stadium and signed autographs. Autographs are not a business here. Cuban beisbol reminded me of the days before sports were commercialized and became big business in the U.S. and throughout the world. Days when you kept a Mickey Mantle or Duke Snyder card because you liked the player and not because the card was valuable. When a baseball game was affordable for everyone.
The game was well played and comparable to our Major Leagues (the Cuban national team split a two game series with the Baltimore Orioles in 1999). The crowd cheered for good plays and booed if the cutoff man was missed regardless of the team. It was obvious that the fans were passionate about beisbol. Tomorrow some will meet at Parque Central  in La Habana Vieja with other fans to discuss this game and beisbol in general. l was told players are paid about $60 a month with a possibility of small bonuses. Cuban players obviously play for the love of the game. I thought about the obscene salaries we pay our athletes.  A-Rod’s salary could pay the entire Cuban baseball league’s salaries for the next hundred years!  With money left over.
The game ended in 13 innings with Camaguey winning, 6-4. There were two rain delays. During the rain, the pitcher’s mound and batter’s box were the only areas covered by small tarps. Everyone from the wooden field level seats scrambled to the concrete seats under the canopy. The canopy was similar to Antoyne’s windshield– leaky.
When we returned to the hotel, I gave Antoyne my baseball cap from the Wilmington, Delaware Blues Festival. Antoyne put it on and was grinning from ear to ear. He was sure he would be the only person in Cuba with a hat like this one. I had a great time at the game. I made some friends who were happy to see me enjoy the game and talk with them about beisbol. It was a great experience and a high-quality game.
Most of Cuba is a flashback to the 1950s. Old American cars and an absence of smart phones. But I noticed that things are starting to change as big foreign companies begin investing in the future of Cuba. If you can get to Cuba soon, see a game.  But check the schedule carefully. If you can’t find one just ask around.
Cubans are helpful and friendly.