Cubans play baseball for the love of the game

By Bill McFarland

(HAVANA) — With pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training camps this week, I thought that it was an appropriate time to reveal that the end of the World Series doesn't necessarily mean that one can't enjoy baseball when the weather is cold in our part of the world.

For years, I've been hearing about the outstanding quality of Cuban baseball. My friends accuse me of going to extremes just for a baseball fix in the winter. Maybe so. Several days after Philadelphia dug out from the January snowstorm, I was in Havana, Cuba, watching the island nation's equivalent of the big leagues.

The view this time is not from the press box. It's from the stands in Estadio Latinoamericano, where I saw the Havana Industriales defeat Las Tunas, 7-2. Cubans are passionate about baseball, and I saw several examples of this fervor during the course of that particular evening.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this experience was getting to the stadium. An afternoon meeting went long, and the service at the restaurant where I had dinner was somewhat slow. It was 8:35 p.m. when I hailed a taxi and asked the driver if the baseball game began at 9 o'clock. He apparently sensed my urgency.

In Cuba, moving violations carry stiff fines, so drivers are quite conservative. If a traffic light begins to change, they slam on the brakes, not the accelerator. This driver's skills matched those of a Manhattan cabbie as he zipped from one lane to the other and cut a few people off during his attempt to get me to the game on time. He dropped me off at 8:50, which gave me enough time to purchase a ticket ($3) and get to my seat.

El Federacion de Beisbol Cubano (Cuban Baseball Federation) is similar to the major leagues in that there are western and eastern zones, each with two four-team divisions — 16 teams total. The squads are named for the city or province that they represent, and none have nicknames except for the Havana entries because there are two of them — the Industriales and the Metropolitanos.

The quality of the Cuban game is very good. It's not quite of major-league caliber, but it's definitely a notch above Triple-A. In the game that I witnessed, the players on both sides were fundamentally sound, and they also knew the right strategy for each situation even though they didn't always execute perfectly.

There were no long waits between batters or innings, and there were no commercial or promotional distractions between innings. Cubans go to the park to watch the game, and nobody leaves until it's over.

The players enjoy celebrity status, but they make no more money than the average Cuban worker, and they are not pampered. One time, a catcher flubbed a return throw to the mound. The ball hit the batter and rolled away. We would normally see the umpire hand another ball to the catcher. The Cuban umpire pointed to the ball that rolled away and told the catcher to fetch it.

Of the players that I saw, I would project only one as a potential big-league prospect. Las Tunas pitcher Ubismey Jimenez is a hard-throwing right-hander. He threw an awful lot of pitches in his seven-plus innings because he ran many long counts and was constantly working himself out of jams. If given the opportunity, I think he could pitch in the major leagues, but he would most likely require some time in Triple-A to work on his control.

A bartender, whose name I did not get, at the Hotel Copacabana in Miramar, a western suburb of Havana, told me of a young player in development who supposedly could fire a fastball consistently in the 105-mph range. If such a pitcher really exists, two things will surely happen.

The international scouts who feed information to American teams will attempt to persuade the player to defect so they can get a cut of his signing bonus. Likewise, Cuban government officials will apply equal pressure on the pitcher to remain loyal and to play for his fellow countrymen.

I've never had to choose between playing for money or playing for the love of the game, but this young Cuban pitcher is not so fortunate. For anyone good enough to play on one of the federation teams, life isn't so bad in Cuba. However, when compared to the fortunes earned by some Cuban players who sign lucrative contracts with major-league teams, life appears so much better.

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but getting out of Cuba is extremely risky and dangerous. It will be interesting to see if this phenom ever takes that risk.

This column was published on Feb. 16, 2005, in the Northeast Times in Philadelphia, which owns the copyright. It may not be reproduced anywhere else without permission.


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