In Cuba, everything is changing, including Cuba’s biggest passion: baseball. With the increasing presence of Major League teams on the island, can Cuba’s National Pastime survive?


Adalberto Fernandez has not missed a Pinar del Rio game in as long as he can remember.

This January night, he’s watching del Rio take on the Cuban League’s most talented baseball squad, Matanzas, in the third and final game of a midseason series. He’s flanked by family on all sides. His father, Papa, is in the rocking chair to his left. To his right, slouched against the wall, are his sons Carlos, 21, and Ariel, 20. They are huddled around Fernandez’s 30-inch Panasonic flat screen. He bought it a year ago, for 700 pesos, roughly nine months of paychecks.

Fernandez makes the half-hour drive from his home in Viñales, in western Cuba, to Pinar del Rio to watch his team in person every time he can. He had to work late today, keeping the books for the local cabaret, and he has to get to work early tomorrow.

He and his family are absorbed by the game. Passersby stop at the window to sneak a peak of the screen, but they are another speck of dust unnoticed. On the floor lies a copy of the Cuban newspaper Granma. The front page applauds news that Venezuela will celebrate José Marti, Cuba’s George Washington; the headline on page four reads, “Obama pide al Congreso poner fin al bloqueo.” Obama asks Congress to put an end to the embargo.

Fernandez, now in his mid 40s, looks nothing like the bubbly twenty-year old marrying his wife, Sonia, in the picture on the wall. His hair has faded from jet black to gray. His mustache is gone. His eyes are heavier, weighed down by gravity, by all they have seen.

Vials Valley, where Adalbert and his family lives, was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
Viñales Valley, where Adalbert and his family lives, was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

Dainer Moreira, Matazanas’ shortstop is batting.

“[Moreira] is a grand ballplayer,” Fernandez says. “It’s a pleasure to watch him play the game, and since he’s older [30], we don’t have to worry about him leaving for the majors.”

Two weeks later, while travelling with the Cuban national team for a tournament in Puerto Rico, Moreira left the team hotel, defecting and launching himself on the path towards a Major League contract.

With Moreira was Valdimir Gutierrez, the 19-year old ace of Pinar del Rio.

Moreira and Gutierrez highlight the growing problem in Cuba’s leagues. Lured by fame and freedom and fortune, Cuba’s baseball stars defect with dreams of playing in America. Cuba’s premier club, Havana’s Industriales are often called the Yankees of Cuba, but it’s a worthless comparison. The Yankees are a professional team, while Industriales are amateur; they don’t have lucrative sponsorships and TV deals. In communist Cuba, ballgames don’t have commercials.

With news of the U.S. and Cuba normalizing relations, Cuban baseball is at the precipice of a titanic shift. “If Cuban players can freely sign with Americans, will there even be a Cuban league?”.

Someone is asking Fernandez the question.

“Adalberto?”

He does not hear. He’s watching a game.

*          *          *

The marriage between Cuba and baseball is an odd one. The sport made it to Cuba because some American sailors wanted an extra dollar. Docked in Matazanas Bay in 1866, they showed off the game, trying to sell equipment. It worked and eight years later the Cuban League was founded with three teams, only two years after the National League started play in America. It was Cubans, not Americans, who spread baseball through Latin America to Venezuela, Mexico and Panama and the Caribbean to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. They loved the sport, and they wanted to share it.

The game grew. American teams toured the island, playing exhibitions, and many times, lost. Cuban-born stars like Minnie Minuso put their stamp on America’s Major Leagues. Others like Aquino Abreu, who hurled back-to-back no-hitters, thrived back home in Cuba’s professional leagues. But when Fidel Castro took power, Cuban baseball flipped on its head. Professional teams were axed and replaced by amateur clubs. Athletes were barred from playing overseas, and for 30 years only two escaped.

In 1991, while playing with the Cuban national team, pitcher René Archoa simply walked out of the Miami airport and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. Castro called it treason. Other players saw it as opportunity. 19 Cubans defected in the following five years, unable to come home and see their families, but able to get paid for their skills. In Cuba, the fall of the Iron Curtain left the country as one of the poorest in the world. In America, MLB salaries were climbing exponentially: four-million in the early 90’s, to six, to ten.pullout1

 

Two years ago, José Abreu, the slugging Cuban first baseman, defected to Haiti and signed with the White Sox for $68 million, more money than most people, especially in the dirt poor barrios of Havana, could ever imagine.

As players left and built new lives, the Cuban Leagues were decimated. They could handle losing one or two players, but in 2013 alone, 13 ballplayers fled the island.

“The leagues were better years ago,” Fernandez says suddenly. For the first time all night, he takes his eyes off the game, and looks at his father. “Now, all the young players go to the US. That player that just signed with the Diamondbacks—he was a great player for Industriales. In the ‘90s, the leagues were really strong…”

He trails off, looking to his father for help. Looking to his father for answers.

Papa doesn’t say anything. He closes his eyes and leans back, his chair rocking under the weight. He nods

Meanwhile, Pinar del Rio’s star shortstop Luis Valdes, who looks and plays like Derek Jeter, is batting. The pitch gets away from Matazanas’ unproven pitcher. A year ago, in Cuba’s World Series, Valdes hit a game-winning grand slam. Now, he is hit in the back by an untamed fastball.

“Ooooof!” Fernandez says.

Papa keeps his eyes closed.

*          *          * 

Fernandez has visitors. Like many others in Viñales, his home is a casa particular, the equivalent of a bed and breakfast. He has been renting a room in his home for 13 years and added a second one last year.

“Welcome,” he says, to the four new guests. “Welcome to Viñales Valley, in the Pinar del Rio province, home of [Chicago White Sox shortstop] Alexi Ramirez. Where are you from?”

“Los Angeles.”

“Ah,” he replies. “Home of Yasiel Puig.”

He loved those players when they played in Cuba. He still does.

The ballpark, just a ten minute walk from the Fernandez home.
The ballpark, just a ten minute walk from the Fernandez home.

In America, when Johnny Damon left the Red Sox for the Yankees, he got death threats. In Cuba, players who leave their teams, their families, their country, are celebrated.

“Alexi is a grand player,” Fernandez says. “Yasiel is a grand player. El Duque was a grand player. They were all great in Cuba, and they were great in America. They got to play in the Big Leagues. That’s the dream. They got to make a lot of money and play with the best players in the world. What’s wrong with that?”

He loves them, but he has lost track of those players’ careers. When they were in Cuba, he watched every game of theirs. He can still rattle off Ramirez’s batting average, home runs, steals from memory.

It’s been eight years since he last watched Ramirez play baseball. He hears former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen gave Ramirez a new nickname: The Cuban Missile. He hears Ramirez is doing well, doing Pinar del Rio proud, but Fernandez only hears these things; he does not know.

“I would love to watch Alexi again,” he says, taking a breath and a pause. “I would love to watch all of those guys again.”

In July, Fernandez thought he might have his chance. An MLB game—from America! —would be rebroadcast on Cuban TV. Of course, Fernandez watched, but he was disappointed. It was a two-month-old game between the Nationals and Braves. Cuban announcers talked over ESPN’s, so their words were jumbled with ESPN’s English. Not one Cuban was playing. Fernandez couldn’t watch Alexi.

In October, the World Series was shown, tape delayed, right after the Cuban League games. Again, no Cubans. Again, no Alexi.

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If anyone asks, Fernandez says he is a White Sox fan. So do most Cubans, since the White Sox are home to both Alexi and Cuban slugger José Abreu.

“I’ve never seen them play,” Fernandez admits. “I don’t even know what color their uniforms are.

“But one day…” he trails off, looking out into the distance, trying to grasp on to whatever hope he has left. “One day soon, I will.”

*          *          *

All around Adalberto’s home, in the town of Viñales, the Cubans hold on. They hold on to their culture. To their families. To hope.

In the shadows of the overgrown gumdrop mountains and the rolling tobacco farms, seemingly every kid in town is playing at Estadio Sergio Dopico, the local baseball field. It’s Wednesday and school just got out. Somehow, the kids all have new gloves, American made bats and bright blue Industriales hats. The older kids are coached in the outfield, stretching, doing drills, while the younger ones, from six to ten, run wild in the infield. A group of American teenagers show up, their hands full of bright blue Dodgers hats. They want to give them to the Cuban children.

“Thank you,” one of the Cuban kids says, hand reached out, clutching his Industriales cap. “Here is something for you too.”

Pity isn’t a currency here. Brotherhood is.

pullout2Above the stadium and the tobacco fields, two farmers, both in their sixties are hunched over a 1950s Ford truck. Freshly painted with bright teal, the hood is up; the engine is broken. There is nothing here, just trees, shrubs and two huts they call their homes. The car is parked in a makeshift garage: giant bushes on both sides and a tree on top. One wears a gray shirt turned black with grease, while the other ditched his shirt hours ago, his body dripping with sweat. They talk baseball while twisting and turning screws, adding liquids, pleading the engine to come to life. One drops a screw and bends at the waste to get it, his knees too worn to squat. There are no mechanics here. Hell, there are no roads. It’s just neighbor helping neighbor, man vs. machine with only pride on the line.

In front yards everywhere in Viñales, there are homemade concrete monuments to the Cuban Five, the Cuban spy ring that was captured by the United States in 1998. The reds, whites and blues—Cuba’s national colors—are fading after 17 years. The monument reads, “Antonio, René, Fernando, Gerardo, Ramón.” Each name gets its own star; some cracked after so much time. In the center, there is one word: “Volverán.” They will return.

Two weeks prior, the United States released the five.

Volverán: They will return.
Volverán: They will return.

Off the main road, there is a larger monument. It is bright; the paint barely dried. There’s a large, white star in the middle, with a bust of José Marti rising out of the center. Behind Marti are paintings of each of the five. There is a new word in the center, in fresh red paint: “volvieron.”

They returned. To a country still holding on.

Volvieron: they returned.
Volvieron: they returned.

*          *          *

It’s the sixth inning now, and Pinar del Rio is losing 1-0. People have stopped passing the window now; they have gotten to a TV of their own. Light from a single, pale LED light bulb reflects off the Fernandezes’ backs. The image on the screen reflects off their faces. Nobody says a word but the announcer on TV.

Pinar del Rio’s right fielder comes up to bat. There are men on first and second. He takes a pitch. Adalberto leans forward in his chair; the play on the field might be worse, but it is no less riveting. The right fielder swings on the next pitch, and the ball rockets off his bat, flying through the air, into the bleachers just 30 minutes away.

In Viñales, the Fernandezes rocket off their chairs. They scream. They cheer. They embrace each other.

In Pinar del Rio, the right fielder jogs around the bases. He wears number 66, like Yasiel Puig.

“Maybe he’ll play in the majors soon,” someone says.

Adalberto laughs. His Cuban leagues have not gotten worse. The skill-level, maybe, but the passion in Cuba is as strong as ever. He will never miss a game. Fathers will always teach their sons the ins-and-outs, no matter how many stars flee to America. No matter how many punches the Cuban teams take, baseball will always be there every night, a beacon of hope in a desolate life. A time to let go when all there is is holding on.

He finally responds. “Maybe. But there will always be five little chicos waiting and ready to take his spot.” 

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