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Fidel and fastballs

I.

It's hard to imagine a better place to bear witness to history than in the grandstand at Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano. It's the bottom of the eighth inning of the Baltimore Orioles' exhibition game against the Cuban national team, the tying run is at third with two outs, and the mighty Omar Linares Izquierdo is at the plate, facing Baltimore closer Mike Timlin.

I sit with Will Gonzalez, of Philadelphia's Al Dia. The field is bright in the early afternoon sun, with shadows creeping across the left field foul line. A fresh, stiff breeze comes in from the ocean, pushing the ballpark's flags and banners toward us.

Below, if we crane our necks, we can see the top of Fidel Castro’s army cap, and the bright teal shirt of Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke. Among the spectators, a young man in full military fatigues scans the stadium bowl and the high-rises off to the north, with a stubby pair of binoculars.

In the 48 hours since we touched down at Aeropuerto Jose Marti on the press corps plane, we’ve gotten used to such little details. This major-league visit to Cuba, after 40 years of estrangement, may be a step toward normalizing relations, but it is by no means normal. For all the Orioles’ protestations that this is an ordinary game, it’s also a full-blown international event.

Indeed, the strangest thing, as the mighty Linares stands in, is that the moment is so straightforward. The 32-year-old third baseman is the veteran hero of this national team, a lifetime .371 hitter with 377 career home runs. If the Cubans are going to prove they belong on the field with the major leaguers, this is where they’ll do it.

On the streets of Havana, rumors about the major leaguers’ godlike abilities had reached wild proportions. Wasn’t it true, a cabbie asked us, that the O’s scheduled starter, Scott Erickson, threw 98 miles per hour?

The Americans, in their road grays with black hats, look massive and forbidding. But between the soft Cuban baseballs, the wind, and the nasty pitching of Jose Con-
treras, their offense has been limited to one two-run home run by Charles Johnson. The stage is set for a David-and-Goliath upset.

Watching, I feel torn. I’m an O’s fan, but there’s something more to it. Two days and three nights in Havana, even in the circumscribed orbit of a diplomatic event, have a way of making one deeply aware of one’s Americanness. You may think the embargo is stupid; you may believe United States policy toward Cuba has historically been brutal and asinine. It doesn’t matter. You are Goliath.

Linares falls behind 0-1, evens the count, fouls a ball off his foot for strike two. He hangs in and works the count full. And then, on the payoff pitch, he rips a ground ball to the left. Third baseman Jeff Reboulet dives, but the ball is already through the infield. The tying run scores. The crowd erupts. I stand, awkwardly, and join the cheering.

II.

Using the word "Americans" to mean people from the United States is a self-centered, American thing to do. Nevertheless, photographer Jefferson Steele and I find ourselves hailed as "Americanos." The Cubans are, by and large, embarrassingly tolerant of our Americano oafishness and limited Spanish skills.

The result is a state of persistent journalistic confusion. Watching ballgames, sans program, I jot down players’ last names from the scoreboard. Substitutions, announced in Spanish, leave me baffled. I have the not-inappropriate feeling that big things are going on, and have gone on before, completely beyond my ken.

III.

Checking in for the charter flight to Cuba from Miami, Jefferson and I hang at the edge of a pack of journalists, two dozen or so, who are lounging around. Mounds of luggage and rugged plastic TV-equipment trunks surround them. Prefaded blue polo shirts predominate.

The Air Miami ticket counter is unstaffed. The assembled journalists are taking it in stride. Between the Cubans procrastinating on delivering the press visas, and Major League Baseball dragging its feet about the charter schedule, many of us had to book our flights to Miami at the last minute, right in the thick of spring break. Now that we’re here, we’re too relieved to be anxious.

Little do we suspect we’re getting a preview of the next three days. Our arrangements, we will learn, are in a state of advanced logistical breakdown. Until the first pitch of Sunday’s exhibition is thrown, not one part of our appointment with history will take place exactly where and when and how it’s supposed to.

Finally, someone makes a few inquiries. The charter, it emerges, has been switched to Delta, halfway around Miami Airport. There, in a sort of oversized closet, crawling with state cops and customs agents, we check the photographic equipment and declare (truthfully) that we aren’t carrying cash to Cuba over the $183 per diem limit.

At the Delta gate, TV crews shoot footage of their milling fellow journalists. Sports-talk host Nestor Aparacio is there, smug and tanned, wearing a brand-new Albert Belle jersey. Over by the windows, we spot Hall of Fame second baseman and ESPN baseball analyst Joe Morgan.

The flight to Havana takes about 40 minutes.

IV.

The fact that Cubans are nutty for baseball is one of the few things the average Americano knows about our island neighbor. The reports are absolutely true. Approaching Havana, the press corps, goggling out the airplane windows with a rare unjadedness, was rewarded with a country landscape full of ballfields, too many to count, in among the white matchsticks of palm tree trunks and the barn-red earth of the plowed fields.

Cubans were playing ball everywhere along the highway from the airport, in parks and lots and yards. To the suspicious mind, it suggested a Potemkin village, some orchestrated attempt to awe the Americans. If so, it was thorough. Wherever we went, there were kids playing ball – in alleys and in the spaces between buildings, where one house in a row of homes had collapsed.

V.

In the states, the recurring description of the exhibition game is that it will be, for the Cubans, equivalent to the seventh game of the World Series. This is concise, easily grasped, and wrong. For the Cubans, the equivalent of the World Series is the Finales, the Cuban-league championship series. We make it to Estadio Latinoamericano for games one and two.

This year’s series pits Havana’s Industriales club against the team from Santiago, the leading city of the eastern end of the island. The regional rivalry is deep and serious. Each team’s supporters occupy one side of the grandstand: Industriales fans on the third-base side, behind the home-team dugout; Santiago fans on the first-base side.

The outfield seats are only partly full, as fans are boycotting the series to protest the way tickets to the Orioles game have been distributed. The government is passing out seats by invitation, to Communist Party members, rather than making them available to the regular fans, who wait hours sometimes to buy tickets.

Even two-thirds full, Estadio Latinoamericano is deafening. Each side has its own pep band of drums and assorted metal implements, with a scattering of horns and noisemakers. Jefferson points out that at Oriole Park, fans have been barred from bringing so much as a cardboard cutout of a broom, for celebrating a series sweep.

On the Santiago side, the cheers are led by a thin kid in a rubber witch mask and a homemade karate suit. He kicks and punches the air, sometimes with the drumming, sometimes at his own frantic pace. When he punches to the left or the right, the people on the appropriate side yell "Hey!"

Both games are back-and-forth affairs, and the cheering veers from one side to the other, sometimes tipping on a single pitch. The Industriales section baits the Santiago fans, with chants of "Pa-la-tee-no! Pa-la-tee-no!" This is a regional insult: People from Havana refer to eastern Cuba as the orient, and to the people there as Palatinos, Palestinians.

At least, that’s how it’s explained by a group of boys, maybe 9 years old, in the bleachers. Will tries to ask more, and one of the boys suggests we shut up and watch the game.

VI.

At the pregame press conference on Sunday, somebody asks Orioles manager Ray Miller if he’s aware that the Cuban general public has been denied the chance to attend the exhibition, where the American public would have been free to attend.

"I can tell you, in the U.S. it is not free," Miller says. "It’s $30 a ticket."

VII.

There is a popular notion, in the United States, that wealth and comfort have corrupted our ballplayers, so they play slowly, sloppily and arrogantly. But the pace of Cuban baseball is dilatory in a way that would be familiar to any fan of the American League. Nobody seems in the least bit of a hurry.

As for the matter of execution, in two games of championship play, the serious and devoted Cubans seem to miss the cutoff man at least as often as lazy Americans do, to say nothing of covering the wrong base, misplaying pitches in the dirt, and getting utterly reckless on the basepaths.

In swagger and gamesmanship, the Cubans go further than major leaguers have. It appears to be standard practice for a batter, seeing what he thinks is ball four, to drop the bat and sprint toward first before the umpire even makes the call – a move which, in the majors, tends to provoke the ump into calling a strike, and leads a pitcher to start headhunting. Another common move is to finish an inning-ending infield play by flipping the ball to the nearest base-runner, usually the guy who’s just been forced out. This latter practice is of some concern to us, watching the exhibition game, for fear of what might happen if someone tried doing it to Will Clark.

Not to say that Cuban baseball is a disreputable and inferior version of the major-league game. The Cubans play with verve and brio, and take a devil-may-care approach to run-scoring. They like to play small-ball, relying on singles to move runners along, but it’s an attacking strategy, not a conservative one. There’s nothing unusual in seeing a runner, dutifully having advanced around the horn to third, attempt to steal home, nor does anyone seem surprised when he gets thrown out.

VIII.

The press accommodations are in the Habana Libre hotel, a five-star establishment towering over the nicer part of downtown. At the time of the revolution, it was a brand-new Hilton. Castro’s revolutionary headquarters were on the 22nd of its 25 floors; our room is on the 23rd.

Saturday morning, after the housekeeping staff has come and gone, Jefferson notices a small object perched on the plastic wainscoting. It appears to be some kind of electronic component, with a plastic body and a row of little shiny pegs along one edge. We are almost certain it can’t be a bug – it doesn’t have a part that looks like a microphone. Moreover, it seems unimaginable, after four decades of Cold War, that the Habana Libre is not already thoroughly bugged, with built-in equipment. We’ve been assuming that.

But still, the thing doesn’t seem to have fallen out of the thermostat, either. We leave it on the bedside table for the rest of our stay. Nothing happens. Monday morning, as we’re packing, Jefferson slips it in his pocket and takes it home.

IX.

The power of the press, in and around Havana, is a strange and erratic thing. Whenever we find ourselves in difficulty, we quickly learn, the thing to do is to flash our credentials. Usually, the effect is magic: Free admission to the ballgames, passage from section to section, entrance to a nightclub. The rest of the time, we hit a stone wall, a curt and final No. Pleading the case just gets us an absolutamente, no.

Saturday afternoon, we get to see the principle in action. The first batch of Orioles – B. J. Surhoff, Delino DeShields, Mike Timlin, Scott Erickson and Harold Baines – is supposed to fly in at 3 p.m. for a press conference inside the terminal. Just before 3, Jefferson and I find the whole entrance cordoned off, with a crowd of Cubans pressed up against the ropes.

Our Prensa tags get us inside the boundary, but no farther. The terminal doors are sealed, flanked by tan-uniformed guards. We join a dozen other media types, pressed up against the tinted-glass doors, trying to follow the shadowy movement inside.

Well past 3, the doors finally open, slightly. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig squeezes through the doorway, and a luggage cart thumps him in the Achilles tendon. I step back from a surge of minicams, and the butt end of one whacks me on my jaw. Someone else gets popped in the forehead.

The Cubans, behind the rope, just watch the crush. The five Orioles file out, close together, and are immediately pinned against the wall by TV crews. Questions and answers alike are inaudible.

As the O’s fight through the swarm, Jefferson and I bail. At the far end of the parking lot, there are food and drink stands. We buy cans of Tropicola, the Cuban national soft drink. The flavor is slightly bitter and astringent.

X.

The effects of the U.S. trade embargo seem to be everywhere and nowhere. The Cuban roads, famously, are full of prerevolution American cars, mixed with tiny off-brand Eurasian supereconomy cars and decrepit things from the old Eastern Bloc. Buildings are falling where they stand. Everything needs a coat of paint. As we barrel through Havana in a taxi at night, past crumbling balconies and fancy ironwork in puddles of cheap fluorescent light, it looks like the New Orleans slums in the movie of A Streetcar Named Desire – lost in the timelessness of poverty.

Yet, perversely, some American stuff gets through. In the crowds at Estadio Latinoamericano, I spot a range of old NBA replica jerseys. The University of Texas and the movie Waiting to Exhale have sent their T-shirts here. A guard at a military base wears a Fila shirt. I lose track of all the Tommy Hilfiger sneakers.

After game two of the Finales, outside the stadium, a group of children clusters around us. One points to my pen. At first, I think he’s asking to borrow it, to get a ballplayer’s autograph. Then Will explains that he wants it para escuela – for school. A young woman from Major League Baseball produces a package of 30 pencils, one for each major-league team. The children converge, grabbing, scuffling. Pencils get snapped in two. Finally, a cop steps in. Vamos, he says, and they scatter.

XI.

Everywhere we go in Havana, there are policemen. They line up every 10 or 15 feet in the stadium, arms folded, watching. Some wear ballcaps, some berets. All wear gray shirts and navy pants, and all are skinny.

I attempt to sort out their different badges and hats, but it’s too nerve-wracking. The Havana police are masters of the glare, the scowl and the evil eye. They wear sinister-looking radio earpieces, and carry long black truncheons. Their expressions include grim aloofness, wary hostility, frank disdain, sullen suspicion, and pure scary blankness.

According to one of our cabbies, this police presence is the result of a crackdown on street crime. In January, the government increased pay for policemen and added 50 percent or 100 percent more officers. The news that many of these hard-eyed men are green recruits is distinctly not comforting.

XII.

Seen in an arts-and-crafts market, in Havana’s Old Town, among pornographic oil paintings, hand-carved dominos, and Che Guevara berets: A papier mâché figurine of Brooks Robinson.

XIII.

The question surrounding the exhibition, of whether the Cuban players can truly match up with the Americans, has different implications, depending on who’s asking. There are, for instance, scouts or general managers representing 24 of the 30 major-league teams along on the trip. For them, the question is, can these Cuban ballplayers be turned into American ballplayers?

This attitude is not restricted to baseball professionals. The natural attitude of the Americano, confronted with Cuba, is one of acquisitiveness. By resisting us for so long, Cuba has become a sort of consumer-imperialist fantasy. What could be more appealing than the thing we can’t have? Four out of five people, hearing about this trip, asked about smuggling cigars back to this country.

This is what the embargo means to our lives: The world’s most prized cigars are off-limits, the great shining consumer contraband. In fact, cigar shopping is perfectly legal for American citizens, as long as they keep their purchase under 100 bucks.

This knee-jerk consumerism also applies, embarrassingly enough, to the ancient cars the Cubans drive. The fat, high-riding Detroit sedans, with their rounded lines, big hood ornaments and tailfins, are fetish objects for red-blooded Americans. But the Cubans, of course, are only driving them because they’ve been cut off from buying new American cars for four decades. If they had their druthers, they’d probably swap the lot for late-model Cavaliers or Prizms.

XIV.

Another press-conference moment: Shortly after the Cuban team representatives take the stage in the hotel’s Salon de Embajadores, someone wants to know what they think about the Cuban refugees in the major leagues, such as the Florida Marlins’ Livan Hernandez, who have criticized the game.

Linares answers in Spanish. "They don’t know about the criticism," the translator, a representative of the San Diego Padres, says.

There is grumbling among the Spanish-speaking press. Someone demands a full translation.

The new version is rather different. While the players have no information about these complaints, Linares says, such criticisms are unjust. The Cuban major leaguers, he says, are products of the revolution, trained and formed by the Cuban government. Their current triumphs depend on that, and they have no right to criticize Cuba.

This reminds Will of another Linares quote: I would rather play for 11 million Cubans, he declared once, than for 11 million dollars.

XV.

It is game two of the Finales, the bottom of the ninth, with los Industriales trailing Santiago, 7-5. Last night, Industriales rallied in the eighth to win; tonight, they’ve shaved three runs off a 7-2 Santiago margin. Even so, their fans are starting to head for the exits.

But Industriales’ big first baseman, Antonio Scull, blasts a home run over the 345 sign in left. As he rounds the bases, the crowd reverses direction. The next batter, Mendez, draws a walk. The batter after him, Correa, does the same.

The following batter squares to bunt, and pops it up. The third baseman comes charging in for it, sliding on his knees –the ball ticks off his glove and rolls into foul ground. The home-plate umpire, following the play, makes precisely the right call: Fair ball, all hands safe.

All hell immediately breaks loose. The Santiago pitcher charges off the mound, grabs the ump by the shirt, and shakes him. The Santiago bench empties; players and umpires mill around, pushing and shoving. Both sides of the stadium are in full roar.

It takes a good 10 minutes to get the visitors back in the dugout. To my surprise, when it’s all settled, the Santiago pitcher is still on the mound. The bases are loaded, with the tying run at third.

The next batter ropes a line drive to left field. The Santiago left fielder comes racing in, toward the line, to make a spectacular stabbing catch for the first out of the inning. The play is so good that the Industriales fans applaud it.

The next batter hits a choppy grounder to short, a potential game-ending double play. The shortstop fields it cleanly, and slings it to second. As the runner comes in with a hard takeout slide, the second baseman leaps in the pivot and fires toward first – where there is no one to catch the ball.

The ball sails through the place where the first baseman should be, and the tying and winning runs come across, 8-7, Industriales. The crowd howls and shrieks and roars. The Industriales players pour out of the dugout, face the crowd, and make the raise-the-roof sign.

Not until the next morning do we figure out exactly what happened. In the melee with the umpires, we learn, the Santiago first baseman had thrown his glove at an ump – evidently, a more serious infraction than merely shaking the ump bodily – and had been ejected for it. So a backup left fielder took his place, and the sub, confused, broke to cover home plate on the final play. The second baseman, facing the takeout slide, threw blindly into the void.

XVI.

When I first see the Santiago players, under the stadium lights, I think they’re wearing red jerseys with gold caps. It takes several innings to figure out that the hats are actually a badly faded red.

Leaving the ballpark, we see a plume of smoke on the parking lot. We’re convinced it’s a bonfire, till we realize it’s coming from the tailpipe of the idling Santiago team bus.

While I stand there, two men come up to me. They are Industriales players, still in their pinstriped game pants. They ask me if I would like to buy an autographed team ball. Five dollars. Stupefied, I dig four singles out of my wallet, and beg a fifth from Jefferson. They hand me the ball – signed all over, by the whole team – and hurry off. I suddenly wish I’d just handed them a 20.

XVII.

Picture the Orioles doing that, after a playoff win. Just try.

XVIII.

It’s late Saturday night, and Will wants to find a genuine Cuban nightspot. We grab our umpteenth taxi of the day and head for the Habana Cafe.

The club is decorated in retro-’50s style. On stage is a three-piece ensemble, playing what seems to be Cuban lounge music. There is a keyboardist, who also handles drum-machine duties, a saxophone player, and a frontman who sings and, unless my eyes deceive, plays a cellophane-covered comb. The stage lighting is gaudy and melodramatic; the comb toots and bellows like some demented clarinet.

Will starts. Isn’t that ––?, he asks, naming an Oriole pitcher. It is. He and another pitcher are just leaving, at quarter past 2. For the record, both will pitch effectively the next day.

XIX.

All weekend, we’ve wondered if Fidel will show up for the ballgame. The answer, when it comes, is abrupt and dramatic. Far below us, on the field, a small group of people appears. There’s no question which is Castro, even at a distance. He moves gracefully, purposefully, with no more haste than the sun or the moon. The crowd thrums and chants his name.

The easy explanation is that all 50,000 souls are, after all, hand-picked party loyalists. But there is something else. The day before, in the fourth inning of game two, the regular baseball fans rose as one and faced center field in silent absorption, to watch the Cuban flag be lowered for the evening.

This is what, under the name of Communism and dictatorship, the U.S. has spent 40 years trying to destroy. Yet it persists. This is the nation that pointed nuclear missiles at our belly, from 90 miles away.

Down on the field, the game goes on, into the 10th and 11th innings. Will Clark hits a double, and three batters later, Harold Baines deftly knocks him home. The Orioles take a 3-2 lead.

Still, the Cubans rally. With one out, Michel Abreu singles off Jesse Orosco. Then, ironically, it comes down to the least illustrious of the Orioles. Cuba’s Roberquis Videaux hits a grounder deep in the second-base hole, and Jesse Garcia, a non-roster invitee for the Birds, dives, smothers it, and throws him out at first.

Ariel Pestano follows with another hard grounder, even deeper. And Garcia makes the same play again, only better, to seal the win.

And now, 50,000 Cubans rise, in admiration, applauding.

Tom Scocca writes for the Baltimore City Paper.

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