Let's Play Ball: Cuban Style | Current Sports | WKAR

May 13, 2015

I traveled to Cuba over spring break this past March and I didn’t know what would be waiting for me when the plane landed in Havana. The most I knew about Cuba was what I learned from my friend, and traveling companion, Erin. She studied abroad in Havana for five months in summer 2014, and fell in love with the country, its people and its culture.

She was so excited to share it with me and for me to experience it for myself.

The first day was spent walking Havana’s maze-like cobblestone streets. From that first 24 hours, I realized there are three key things that influence Cuban culture: music, dance and baseball. Throughout my stay I learned a variety of different dances in the street and at the bar, and my ears never heard silence for the music never sleeps, but the thing that was constantly staring me straight in the face, was baseball.

Clothing in Cuba, just like most other things, is expensive for its citizens. One plain T-shirt I saw cost close to 30 CUC, equivalent to $30. A bottle of shampoo at a convenience store ranged from 50 to 125 CUC. Cubans often get their clothing from visitors. One morning we saw a guy wearing a Grand Valley (State)? Shirt. Another day, I asked to take a picture of a guy sporting an old Ferris State T-shirt. I was unaware of this prior to leaving the States, but Erin brought along some Michigan State gear to hand out.

Packed stands at Estadio Latinoamericano, the home of the Industriales Blue Lions.
Credit Lia Kamana

  The cultural clothing some women wore and the all white worn by the followers of Santeria definitely stood out the most, but I couldn’t help but take notice of the No. 1 clothing item in the streets: baseball caps. I saw Cuban men sporting hats adorned with Yankees, Marlins, Blue Jays, and Padres logos. It was as if one needed to have a baseball cap in order to be “cool.”

Erin fit right in with her Tigers hat, which was perhaps the most valuable thing besides money that we carried with us during our trip. People would see her hat, come up to us and start talking. They would point it out to others, and in a way, it made them our automatic friend. The Detroit Tigers are a favorite in Cuba with Yoenis Cespedes, a Cuba native, joining the roster in December 2014. 

We saved the market in Old Havana for the end of our trip so that we could get everything and anything that caught our eye during our journey. Erin’s sole goal for the marketplace was to find a national team jersey and we stopped at every shirt booth in search of it. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find the jersey she wanted, but we did find a good substitute - but it would take a big trade or a lot of money. In the end, she traded her Tigers hat, and the guy who was lucky enough to get it was so excited, I am sure his smile was visible from the shores of Key West, which on a clear day can be seen from the market place lining the harbor.

We chose to go to the market in Old Havana because of our timing and budget, but also because it was the biggest.  But it wasn’t the first market we came across. There were markets everywhere, from lining the main street in Varadero, a beach town two hours from Havana, the town squares in Havana, even out of our own hostel. Souvenir shops were like Starbucks in America. Shops were packed with shirts adorned by the faces of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, Cuban flags, models of old cars and motorcycles, and it was never complete without baseball bats, baseballs gloves, baseballs and jerseys. Erin even got a baseball that said Cuba and a little baseball bat with her name engraved in it.

The variety of baseball bats that were in the market places were always one of my favorites, especially the ones that came on a rack with every bat size possible. The displays made me think of training bats, the smallest being for a 4-year-old and the biggest being for regulation play. It was our second day in Cuba when I first saw these bat displays and it was in the living room of our hostel. When the owner’s son found out we were baseball fans, he spent a whole hour showing us his collection and talking “baseball” with us. He didn’t speak much English but we did our best, as sports is the same in every language.

Cubans’ reaction - once realizing we were baseball fans - was exactly how Erin reacted every time we happened upon a baseball field: joy. The funny thing is, she was excited even if the field was empty, so you can only imagine her enthusiasm when we discovered fields with practices going on.

The first practice we came across was in Varadero. The team was made up of kids aged 10-12. We originally walked over to the field just to get some pictures, but the coaches, probably not used to an audience, noticed Erin’s Cespedes jersey and immediately came over and struck up a conversation with us. They shared how much they love Cespedes and they mentioned their desire to one day travel to the U.S. I wished I had studied harder in my four-years of high school Spanish so I could have asked more questions.

The second practice we happened upon was across the street from the famous revolution plaza, where hundreds of tourists flock to snap a picture of the giant faces of Castro and Che adorning the sides of apartment buildings. These players were around ages 14- 16, the last level before making a professional team in Cuba. The boys were all dressed in national team colors: red, white and blue. You could tell that the emotion on the field changed when they noticed we had taken an interest in their practice. The boys running sprints made sure we were watching before they took off, after a play was made on the diamond the players looked over to us almost looking for reassurance. The guys in the dugout were pointing, waving and motioning us to come closer.

Before we knew it, we were talking to the boys as they were taking a break from sprints and one of them asked, “Are you guys from America? Do you work for ESPN?” Both being sports journalism majors, Erin and I looked at each other with a “‘we wish’” kind of look and replied, “We’re from the U.S. but we don’t work for ESPN, we hope to be one day though!” We told the boys that we are baseball fans. We shared our favorite teams, favorite players. They told us that they hope to one day play in America and maybe we will be interviewing them on the sideline in America soon.

Credit Lia Kamana

There was one other thing besides an international team jersey that Erin told me she had to do before we left, and that was to attend a professional baseball game.

After asking everyone we could for a game start time, we flagged a taxi and made our way to the home of the Industriales Blue Lions, Estadio Latinoamericano. Industriales is the more famous of Havana’s two teams and is referred to as Cuba’s New York Yankees. They were playing against Granma, a team not as decorated as Industriales, but known by us as being Cespedes’ old team.

Arriving at the stadium was chaotic, as blocks before reaching it we could barely drive down the pedestrian-clogged road. Attempting to figure out where to buy tickets and how to enter the stadium was stressful. Without realizing it we had made our way into the stadium without a ticket or any questioning. There was no long ticket line, if there even was one, there was no turnstile with a ticket scanner, no bag search, and no one making sure you were sitting in the correct section or correct seat - clearly we weren’t in America.

The stadium was about the size of a minor league baseball stadium, but the upkeep was that of a public high school. The paint was faded, the railings were rusty, and the cement bleachers looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in awhile, but it didn’t matter to those baseball fans.

The crowd was loud and a little unruly, what I would envision like a European soccer match. Erin, of course, wore her Cespedes jersey. From the moment we accessed the bleachers, people were pointing and calling out to us, there was even one guy who came over and asked to get a picture with her. Erin was a hit with her jersey.

Baseball practice near Revolution Plaza in Havana. It was about 90 degrees that day.
Credit Lia Kamana

  Granma ended up destroying Industriales, 11-4. Granma played a great game but Industriales didn’t look like they ever truly showed up. We came to find out that it was a playoff game too, so much to the dismay of Industriales fans, the Blue Lions were out of the Cuban National Series.

Following the game, we went to watch the Granma players get on the team bus. It reminded me of a high school football game, where the only people waiting to greet the players were the families and maybe a few friends. Since I didn’t know what to expect, this didn’t seem to weird to me at first, but once Erin explained to me why she was so surprised I couldn’t help but be surprised myself. There were no fans going crazy asking for autographs and taking pictures. These players weren’t celebrities. These players didn’t even receive the recognition of American college athletes, making me realize that it truly is the sport that Cubans are in love with, it doesn’t matter who’s playing.

Serie Nacional, Cuban’s Professional league, has 16 teams, one from each of its 15 provinces, with two coming from the province of Havana.The teams have about 32 players from their specific province. Players enter the professional league between the ages of 16-18, and most Cuban players who get picked up by Major League Baseball get drafted by 19.

Currently, there are 26 Cuban baseball players in the MLB, playing on 15 of its 30 teams. In order to play in the U.S., players must defect from Cuba. There have been 89 players in the history of the MLB, and the number continues to grow. Cuba has made itself known as a baseball hotspot in recent years with emerging MLB stars such as Puig, Cespedes, Chapman and Fernandez, but many believe the best is still yet to come.

I am one of the few Americans who can say I’ve witnessed true Cuban baseball. It is a personality that is unrefined, non-commercialized, passionate, local and spirited. A personality that embodies everything that is Cuba.