My rear end is still sore from sitting on the broken slatted metal seats at Holguin’s Calixto Garcia Stadium, but other than that and the odd blackout (also in Holguin), watching a top-level baseball game in Cuba is a refreshing experience to someone used to the American 21st Century version. Going to four or five games (in Holguin, Bayamo, and Artemisa) has hardly made me an expert on Cuban baseball, but I thought I would share some history and observations.In 1961, with the regime drifting closer to Communism, Fidel Castro ended decades of professional baseball tradition with the stroke of a pen. The four-team winter Liga Cubana was no more, and the International League’s Havana Sugar Kings had been transferred to Jersey City in July of 1960 (the franchise survives as today’s Norfolk Tides). What had been a professional system intertwined with U.S. organized baseball became an amateur all-Cuban affair known as the National Series, which remains to this day. One important change was that the teams were now spread out throughout the island, rather than all being based in the capital, as was the case in the Cuban League. The Industriales team was created to take the place of the popular Almendares and Habana clubs, with Industriales borrowing the blue of Almendares, and the lion emblem of Habana. The flow of Cuban players (other than the ones who left) to the U.S. major leagues obviously stopped.
There are several obvious differences between North American and Cuban games. First, the atmosphere in the parks is still all about the baseball. There are no distractions from the game, except for the occasional inebriated fan being escorted from the ballpark by the police. Fans are knowledgeable, boisterous, and not afraid to express their opinion. The proximity of the stands to the action on the field facilitates this. No alcohol is sold in the park, and perhaps that’s understandable. Available snacks are limited to paper cones of roasted peanuts and the odd wrapped ham and cheese sandwich. (On the positive side, one can enjoy a cigar during the game without anyone batting an eye). Cuba has been in financial crisis since the demise of their former patron, the Soviet Union, and this shows in the condition of the parks. There was a blackout in the fourth inning in Holguin, and the light standards in Artemisa had no lights. Infield conditions varied from decent to sub-par, and there were a few bad hops on the hard dirt. The current format in Cuba has sixteen teams – one from each province – playing a 45-game schedule. Half the teams are then eliminated and the remaining eight play another 45 games, then playoffs to determine a national champion (last year, Pinar del Rio). Industriales are the Yankees of Cuba, the team everyone loves to hate.As to the quality of play itself, it varies widely. because of the large number of teams for a relatively small population, there are a few players of major league caliber some who could play in the minors, and some who probably would not make it even at the lower minor league level in North America. The style of play itself is exciting, with aggressive base-running and lots of offense. We had an opportunity to visit with Victor Mesa, former Cuban star and now manager of the Matanzas team. He is perhaps the most colorful figure in the Cuban game today, and is either loved or reviled by Cubans, (depending upon whether or not they are Matanzas fans!), Mesa is an imposing figure, not afraid to pull a pitcher instantly if he sees something he doesn’t like (he pulled one hurler for throwing a knuckleball. In another game he used four catchers. I didn’t know any teams even carried four catchers). Cuban baseball has a new arrangement with the Japanese leagues which allow a player to play in Japan during Cuba’s off-season and keep most of their salary (astronomical by Cuban standards) with a portion going to INTER, the Cuban baseball organization. Obviously, because of the embargo, a similar arrangement with MLB is far off, and the only way a Cuban player can achieve his major league dreams is by defecting, which many have done. If the embargo were to be lifted, I can see a day when perhaps more Cuban players can be fed into organized baseball, with INTER being able to make enough money from the arrangement to improve their ballparks, training facilities, and equipment, but this is pure speculation on my part. We were fortunate to have Peter Bjarkman in our group last week. Anyone wanting to know more about Cuban baseball history should seek out his book “Smoke” (written with Mark Rucker), as well as Peter’s blog.