More than just a game
“In Cuba, when you speak about baseball, baseball is not a sport. It’s a culture. When the boy is born, the father’s gift is the bat and the ball”.
– Dr. Antonio Castro, vice president of the International Baseball Federation and son of Fidel Castro
Take the national frenzy of American football and combine it with the hopes and dreams of little soccer players in villages around the world. Add the pure simplicity of kids playing pick-up games in Indiana and you begin to get a feel for Cuban baseball. It’s much more than just a game.
Cubans studying in Mobile, Alabama (of all places) brought baseball to Cuba for the first time in the 1860s. Because the Cuban people eventually preferred baseball to bullfighting, Spanish rulers tried banning the game. With this deeper significance in play, the game itself became a symbol of freedom and resistance from Spanish oppression. By 1878 a Cuban baseball league was formed. The game soon became a national obsession.
Everyone seemed to play baseball, even Fidel Castro, who was rumored in 1949 to be offered a contract by the New York Giants that included a $5,000 signing bonus. After some deliberation, Castro refused and went on to do a few other things in Cuba (like lead a revolution!).
After the Revolution, the government banned professional sports and prohibited Cuban athletes from joining foreign teams. Amateur teams replaced professional ones, and baseball was played on a socialist model, driven by national ideals, not money. Castro deemed baseball players to be “standard bearers of revolution.”
Baseball came naturally to Cubans and they excelled in the international scene, winning silver or gold medals in every Olympics that baseball was played. They placed second in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, and today Cuba is ranked number one in the world by the International Baseball Federation. This international success has fueled a national pride that is palpable when talking with Cubans today.
Many Cuban baseball players are highly coveted by teams all around the world. Major league teams in the United States are willing to pay millions for elite Cuban players. This was demonstrated recently when the Chicago White Sox signed Cuban pitcher Jose Abreu to a $68 million contract. With the average player in Cuba earning less than $20 a month, and professional teams often lacking bats, gloves, and balls, the lure of the Major Leagues in the United States is strong. It’s no wonder some are willing to literally risk their lives to get there.
Last season alone there were 21 Cuban-born players in the major leagues, including national league rookie of the year Jose Fernandez and Dodgers rookie star Yasiel Puig, who placed second in rookie voting. Many more could play in the United States, but the Cuban government has restrictions. The fault doesn’t lie solely with the Cuban government, however. The United States forbids Major League teams from hiring Cuban citizens, thus requiring each one to defect and renounce his Cuban citizenship to be eligible for a contract.
The Hot Corner
I love baseball, and with interest declining in the United States, I was thrilled to see baseball being played by Cubans of all ages in the streets, parks, and stadiums all over the country. To my amusement, I came upon a little corner of Havana’s central park called “Esquina Caliente” (or “hot corner”) where you can almost always find an intense debate about Cuban baseball. Old guys yell and argue about baseball 24 hours a day, 7 days per week, clearing out only when it rains.
National pride is incredible, and baseball players that stay in Cuba are deeply respected not only for their skill, but for their loyalty to their country. While considered heroes, many are not paid more than the common man and have to work other jobs. Some even quit organized ball in order to provide for their family. Because of this, you could argue Cuba is one of the only places where people still truly play for the love of the game.
During my time in Cuba, I was able to experience this passion for baseball every time I brought out my glove. Just the sight of my baseball glove broke down international barriers and quickly turned a serious grown man into a kid attempting to turn (an invisible) double play or hitting (an invisible) home run with me in his kitchen.
I never would have thought a baseball glove could replace the olive branch on such a small personal scale. Now if only the US and Cuban governments could put away their boxing gloves and bring out their baseball gloves and start turning double plays together!