Sports

For Cuba, Second Place Was Triumph

'Baseball is life itself.' And they outplayed the Yanquis.

By Tom Hawthorn 24 Mar 2006 | TheTyee.ca
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Every Cuban base hit during Monday night's World Baseball Classic championship game sparked jubilation at Parque Central in Havana.

A crowd gathered in the downtown square to watch on a big screen the game broadcast from San Diego. Parque Central is surrounded by grand hotels, including the Plaza, where, outside Suite 216, a bronze plaque commemorates a stay by the great Babe Ruth in 1920.

The square is also home to the esquina caliente - the Hot Corner - at which fans gather to talk baseball every day. The informal gathering, known as the Pena, is a free-wheeling debate where strong lungs trump a considered opinion. Free speech is in short supply on the Caribbean island, unless the topic is baseball.

Cuba wound up losing 10-6 to Japan in the final. Just getting to the showdown was seen as victory by some. Many Americans reacted to the Cubans as Canadians did to the Soviets during the 1972 Summit Series, winding up respecting what had been alien creatures. As it was, the unknown Cuban team had to defeat Venezuela, Puerto Rico and a formidable Dominican Republic team to contest the championship.

Get out the stats books

When Cuba defeated the Dominican Republic, several American sports writers referred to the lack of freedom in Cuba. Fair comment, yet none saw fit to note the figures of infant mortality (6.33 deaths for every 1,000 births) under Communist dictatorship compared to the democracy of the Dominican Republic (32.38 deaths for every 1,000 births). The richest tenth of Dominicans gorges on 40 percent of the national income, while the poorest half makes do with less than 20 percent. Don't take my word for it. That's according to the CIA. Anyway, back to baseball.

Some of the early scouting of the Cuban team suggested they were little better than low-level minor leaguers, but the team was deceptive in its skill. In garish red uniforms, they looked less like major leaguers than a softball squad from a beer league. Until they got on the field, that is, performing razzle-dazzle circus plays at second base, or pouncing on bunts like a puma on prey. Sometimes, the television cameras caught the players on the bench spraying water from the dugout for good luck, trying to conjure a run from the red dirt of the infield like a farmer coaxing sugar cane from the fertile soil of their native land.

Fifth-inning coffee stretch

In Cuba, the atmosphere at a game is different than that found at Nat Bailey Stadium in Vancouver. For one thing, the outfield walls are painted with revolutionary slogans instead of advertising. Coffee is sold by vendors in the stands, who pour the steaming black-as-oil liquid from long-necked pots into wee paper pyramids. Attendants deliver coffee to the umpires on the field during the fifth inning, waiting for the imbibing to be completed before returning with empty cups to the dugout.

The fans are raucous, not shy about describing the shortcomings of the opposition or the sadly deficient umpires. Tickets are cheap, so many locals take advantage for non-baseball reasons. I once attended a game at Jose Antonio Huelga Stadium at Sancti Spiritus in which a grandstand filled with flirtatious teenagers offered more action than to be found on the playing field.

The streets of Havana are filled with youths playing baseball with whatever materials come to hand, a table-leg for a bat and a stone tightly bound with scrap paper as a ball. On the grounds of the Capitolo, the replica of Capitol of Washington, D.C., urchins play pickup baseball on a narrow strip of grass. A pop foul would send the precious ball into traffic, so batter after batter smacks line drives over the pitcher's head to be caught by fielders dodging amidst the statuary. No wonder Cuba produces exceptional ball players.

British Columbia connection

Kit Krieger of Vancouver fell in love with Cuban-style baseball when visiting the island as part of a teachers' exchange. Krieger, a fanatico of pelota who worked as a clubhouse attendant for the Vancouver Mounties in the late 1960s, later launched a company to bring tourists to Cuba to see baseball. Customers on his expeditions forego the sands of Cuba's spectacular beaches for the dirt around home plate.

After the 1959 revolution, Fidel Castro banned what he called "slave baseball." The professional game had a rich history on the island, including a team called the Havana Sugar Kings that competed against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Royals of the International League.

Cuba has a rich baseball history. Before the integration of the major leagues in 1947, the island provided a venue where white and black players could compete with and against one another. The best players of the Negro Leagues, including the likes of Max Manning and Monte Irvin, headed south in the winter to play in Havana, where they were able to play on the same field and eat in the same restaurants as their white teammates.

These days, the Cuban league has teams from each of the country's 14 provinces, plus one from a special municipality and another from the capital. An athlete's birthplace determines for which team he plays. So, that would make Joe Sakic a Vancouver Canuck, Wayne Gretzky a Toronto Maple Leaf and Mario Lemieux a Montreal Canadien. The players enjoy a comfortable life by Cuban standards, but many would be millionaires if they defected to the Major Leagues.

'Now you pay'

Krieger is a rare link between these two eras. Castro's regime has shown little interest in preserving the history of pre-revolutionary baseball. The Vancouver man has raised funds to restore two marble ossuaries at the Necropolis Cristobal Colon. He has also befriended Conrado (Connie) Marrero, an old pitcher who turns 95 in August.

Marrero is rarely without a thick stogie in his mouth. The right-hander was already a legend in his homeland when he at last got a chance to pitch in the Major Leagues at age 38 in 1950. In Cuba, the son of a sugarcane farmer is known as El Guajiro (The Hillbilly), while Life Magazine once called him the Slow Ball Senor. Marrero was blessed with a wicked slider and a deceptive repertoire of junk pitches. His pitching motion was compared to "an orangutan heaving a 16-pound shot." He recorded 39 wins and 40 losses over five seasons with a weak Washington Senators team. He is the oldest living player from that storied club.

The sportswriter Bob Addie used to tell an anecdote about a game between the Senators and the New York Yankees at old Griffith Stadium. Marrero stroked a hit to Mickey Mantle in right field, who threw the stubby pitcher out at first base. When Mantle ran to the dugout after the inning, Marrero called after him. "Nice play, Mickey," he said. "Now you pay." He then struck out the great Mantle three times.

Krieger recently visited with Marrero. He took with him 17 letters he had coaxed from former teammates and opponents, all old men remembering the feats of their youth. For one afternoon, an old pitcher's memory revived his heyday on the mound.

Were he able to travel to the United States, Marrero would likely earn a small fortune on the nostalgia circuit, signing autographs and recounting his vivid stories about a distant era. Instead, he lives in modest circumstances with his daughter's family.

Marrero knows what the summer game means to his countrymen.

"Baseball in Cuba," he says, "is life itself."

Tom Hawthorn is a Victoria reporter whose baseball nickname is E5.  [Tyee]

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