By Manuel E. Yepe
A CubaNews translation.
Edited by Walter Lippmann.
Over the last few years, groups of baseball history aficionados from the U.S. and Canada have been flying to Cuba to visit historic sites related to this sport and various ballparks to watch Cuba’s provincial teams at play.
Because of the measures implemented by the George W. Bush administration to strengthen the U.S. economic blockade, especially the travel ban imposed on American citizens, these groups are made up exclusively of Canadians, all of them Major League Baseball fans.
While here they meet with some of the country’s great sporting figures who used to play in a number of professional baseball leagues in the U.S. or elsewhere in our continent and whose careers and records are known to them, and share memories and news with the ex-players about others who live here or there or have passed away.
These groups also visit the graves of outstanding Cuban athletes, as well as commemorative plaques and monuments put up either to Cuban ballplayers or Canadian nationals in honor of their achievements in domestic or international matches.
Likewise, they get to greet, always with great admiration and respect, many of the current first-class players of Cuban baseball whose performance in Olympic or Pan American Games, world baseball championships or friendly games with MLB or other professional teams have brought them stardom.
Some of these Canadians even keep up with our National Tournament through the Internet.
Particularly emotional is their usual visit to the cemetery of Cruces, a town in the province of Cienfuegos, where Martín Dihigo (1912-1971) lies buried, and to the Municipal Museum, where there’s a hall dedicated to the famous Cuban player deemed by many the most complete the world has ever seen.
Martín Dihigo filled in every position in the field and is the only one included in four Halls of Fame in three countries: Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. (for his record in both the Big Leagues and the Negro League). He was a fantastic pitcher and a great hitter who set plenty of records, some of which are yet to be broken.
Another significant event is their meeting with Cuban veterans who played in the Majors and gladly share highlights of their life as ballplayers.
I attended one of such meetings where the fantastic African American hitter and Negro League Hall of Famer Monte Irving was present. Now in his eighties, Irving held a friendly argument with the Cuban former MLB pitcher Conrado Marrero, currently a nonagenarian, about a game they played 60 years ago in which the Cuban first struck him out with runners on base and then, in his next at-bat, Irving hit a huge homerun. They both remembered every detail of that game and had a great time exchanging other unforgettable moments of their long-lived friendship on baseball diamonds.
Striking, the way these visitors are delighted at the noncommercial character of Cuban baseball, something they put on a level with the original spirit of the game that North America has lost or is on its way to losing as a result of the growingly suffocating profit-oriented schemes imposed on sports.
If any of them grumbles about a defensive error caused by a flaw of the infield surface or complains that a quality game should not be marred by the use of worn-out balls, there’s always someone who remarks that the authenticity of this sport justifies everything.
It’s incredible to see, when they visit any of the many baseball fans’ discussion circles spread across the country, how well they communicate with the Cubans despite the language barrier, shatter by gestures that all baseball buffs master and use at will, not only in the hurly-burly of a stadium but also in their raucous give-and-take with foreign fans.
Batting averages, ball exit speed ratios, base-running skills, a coach’s strategy and tactics… they’re all described with baseball-like mime and lots of shouting on the side, enough to turn Havana’s Parque Central or any other venue into a genuine, if noisy, friendship forum.
I must point out that some local fans are somewhat distrustful of the visitors, as they don’t rule out the chance that the Canadians might be talent scouts with their eyes on Cuban ballplayers, motivated by political or simply profit-making purposes. They banish all suspicions from their mind, however, as soon as they hear Professor Kit Kriger, a longtime leader of teachers’ labor unions in the city of Vancouver and organizer of these trips, exhort baseball players and fans alike to maintain the purity of the game and keep it beyond the reach of merchants and state with certainty that Cuban baseball outranks American baseball both in terms of competitiveness –as evidenced by the final standings in the 2006 World Baseball Classic– and sportsmanship.
He urged our athletes to devote themselves totally to community sports, turn a deaf ear to siren songs, and always stand by their people, whose support is worth more than any amount of money or consumer goods.
Many of these Canadians interested in the history of baseball have strongly condemned the action taken by the U.S. government to prevent Cuba from being in the abovementioned Classic, as they came within an inch of frustrating one of the most significant events in baseball’s recent history. On the other hand, they highly praised the decision taken by the Cuban government and players to donate any money received at the tournament to the victims of hurricane Katrina, which had destroyed New Orleans only days before, mainly for lack of official involvement. It was Cuba’s attitude what saved the Classic, they assured.
The fact that Cuba finished second –ahead of every other team of the American continent– and even knocked the superpower’s super-team out of the Classic was described by some of them as proof that, far from contributing to the quality of the game, the exorbitant mercantilism ruling over baseball in today’s world detracts from it.
The damage caused by the four-decade-long U.S. blockade on Cuba amounts to more than $80 billion, that is, some $2 billion a year on average. And every year the world votes almost unanimously in the General Assembly of the United Nations against such a flagrant violation of international law.
Something that hardly any U.S. citizen knows is that every time a Cuban player succumbs to a financial offer –made for political reasons rather than for the athlete’s intrinsic qualities– and accepts a contract to play professional baseball in another country, the news travels fast as part as the smear campaign against the Island and its social and political achievements.
How sad that a game otherwise helpful to bring together the peoples of Cuba and the U.S. who love it so much –as shown by these group visits of North American baseball historians– should be used to distort the facts of the Cuban Revolution and encourage defection by promising resources completely alien to the humanism and solidarity values inherent to Cuban sports players.
“Socialism is voluntary”, goes a motto that Cubans proudly voice whenever any high-performance athlete makes such an unfortunate choice and decides to relinquish his or her compatriots’ admiration and affection.
Por Manuel E. Yepe