October 20, 2017

Cuba Ball 2017

September 29, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Cuban right-handed pitcher Pedro Luis Lazo holds the record for the most wins in the Cuban National Series. Our Cubaball tour encountered him in his hometown of Pinar Del Rio after the evening’s game against Industriales had been cancelled due to rain. The huge man stood beside a swimming pool and talked about his career, hooking his fingers around a baseball to illustrate his slider grip. It was the slider and his 98 mph fastball that he used across a 20 year career that included many highlight moments in international play, not the least of which were two Gold Medals in the Olympic Games of 1996 (Atlanta) and 2004 (Athens).

One member of our Cubaball tour group, which was visiting Cuba this past week, asked Lazo whether he was ever on a pitch count during his career. Lazo laughed as he tossed a baseball idly in his hand and described one of the games he remembers best, a complete game shutout during his 1996-1997 season when he compiled a 1.15 record but lost the Most Valuable Pitcher Award to Jose Contreras. In that game Lazo threw 168 pitches allowing only two hits and racking up 14 strikeouts. Monty Cely, the member of the group who asked the question, followed up by asking how he pitched in his next start. “Even better,” Lazo said laughingly then beaming a proud grin.

Author with Pedro Lazo

Lazo was never on a pitch count and listening to the big man talk, it was hard to imagine how a more out-sized passion for the game of baseball could exist. That spiritual bond–so much on display in Cuban baseball stadiums that we visited–is what unites the fans across the Straights of Florida and is a reason for hope that someday our nations may yet heal the wounds that plague us still. The delight of the tour is the behind the scenes meetings with the managers and players of the Cuban National Series teams.

Yes, there was baseball trivia at dinner. And for the baseball aficionados, most of whom are members of the Society for American Baseball Research, the Cuba tour is an extension of their desire to see and know as much about the game as possible. But the tour reflects the character of Cubaball’s founder, Kit Krieger. He has been to Cuba more than 30 times since first visiting the island in 1997 as part of the British Columbia Teachers Federation. Krieger’s broad interests in areas as varied as unions, baseball, education and human rights shine through the trip.

Kit was not on this tour because his wife fell and injured herself. His brother, Bob Krieger-known in Cuba as “Pepito,” was a capable stand-in who has been many times himself. Then there is Clem Rodriguez, the Cuban native who serves as tour coordinator and was brought aboard almost a dozen years ago. Clem was the one who disappeared inside the stadiums and emerged with the manager of the Villa Clara team in tow ready to talk to our group less than an hour before game time. Clem was the one who translated with Lazo and numerous other players and managers with whom we met.

As essential as Clem’s services in gaining us access to the best restaurants and hotels in the towns we visited, it was his inside look at the political culture of Cuba that was one of the sparkling facets of the trip. How was Fidel able to consolidate power after Batista’s defeat? Why did Che leave for Bolivia? Why did the revolution fail to deliver on its early promise? What was it like as an ambitious adolescent living through the “special period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union? What has made the Cuban people so resilient? As the bus took us from city to city in the Cuban countryside, as the fields of sugar cane and palm trees flashed past us, Clem expounded at length on the complex realities of life in Cuba. He left the country in his twenties as a member of the Cuban National Dance Troupe on an international tour,and now lives in Toronto, but keeps one foot firmly in his former country.

Cienfiegos Pitching Coach, Adiel Palma, with Peter Bjarkman

The tour includes a stop at the memorial to Che Guevara, the giant bronze sculpture atop the tomb in which his remains and those of his comrades in Bolivia are entombed. Che is one of the topics that is discussed in almost as much depth as any other historical figure, baseball or otherwise, although there was no Che trivia contest at dinner.

One of Kit Krieger’s earliest projects on the island was Connie Marrero, the old Washington Nationals pitcher who began his career in DC at age 39. Marrero pitched from 1950-55 and Kit lobbied for and helped Marrero receive a $10,000 annual pension from Major League Baseball. Several years ago, Mike Grieb of the Washington, DC SABR chapter, was on the tour and was able to share his memories as a 10-year old watching the old master pitch. Connections like that are part of the magic of the tour as well.

Then there is the camaraderie of like-minded souls–and the singular ones as well. There were academics and journalists, lawyers and statisticians. There was Peter Bjarkman who was our resident Cuban baseball scholar, welcomed by every player and manager we met for all that he has done to publicize their endeavors. There were SABR luminaries like Oscar Soule–who has been on the tour nine times–and Larry Gerlach, who had never been. There was wit and humor, but always there was the uniting theme of it all, the passion for the game and for life in general. It is why people like Tom Hawthorne has made the trip seven times and introduced his son John to the trip for the first.

One of my favorite moments on the trip came when Victor Mesa, one of the greatest outfielders of the Cuban National Series, appeared out of nowhere to talk to our group. Like Lazo, Mesa has won many gold medals in the Olympics and other international tournaments. He has had one of the longest and most successful careers among all Cuban players. Like Lazo, he has become a very successful manager within the Cuban National Series and he currently can be found in the dugout of the Industriales team–based in Havana, where they have won so many Cuba National Series Championships that it forever seems the rest of the league is chasing them.

This year Lazo’s Pinar Del Rio sits atop the league, but Las Tunas and the Industriales are close on their heels. It would have been fascinating to see the two teams match up, to see the two great stars of the league as managers going toe-to-toe, but the weather in the tropics has been restless this summer and we were all glad to have made it without a hurricane.

As soon as Victor Mesa engaged with our group the electricity of the man spread as everyone gathered in to hear his every word. It was as if his wiry salt and pepper mane was on fire and the only way to contain the blaze was to talk without stopping to the crowd. Clem could barely translate fast enough. It was fascinating to envision this force of nature playing center field, to wonder what he must have been like in his youth. He told us how much he loved American fans, especially those like himself who were not as young as they once were. Ouch!!

And then without warning he pointed his finger at one of our group, Elena North. There was a huge smile on Mesa’s face and it was clear that he considered her as beautiful a woman as any he had seen. He gestured for her to come forward and the two were photographed together. I was standing nearby when she moved forward and she passed me her phone to take a photo. I got closer and took several and then Mesa motioned to me. Clem translated, saying that Victor wanted only fairness and that I should have my picture taken with HIS wife. Hoping that my wife–who is not Elena–would understand, I complied gladly. Who would not want their picture with a beautiful Cuban woman?

At every stop along our trip we donated baseball equipment to the teams–balls and gloves mainly. Some were given to youth academies. The National Series stadiums were far more elegant than I had pictured them from Peter Bjarkman’s comments, however, but they are not new and at Villa Clara the box seats near home plate were decrepit at best. The balls weathered noticeably during games as the umpires continued to recycle earlier game balls into play. Games are played in the day because the lighting is too expensive to divert from other avenues of enterprise. Like so much in Cuba, they need our help.

Villa Clara manager receiving donated baseballs

But there is pride in Cuba, pride in the hard-won independence they have achieved from the US, and even from the Russians, despite the hard times they endured in the aftermath. They will not give up their nationhood gladly or easily and those that believe MLB and their Dominican-styled academies will be welcomed as a way to drain off even more baseball talent for the Majors are deluded. No doubt Manfred and company could care less about Cuban pride or the country’s independence and they are having their way with Cuban talent for the moment, but hopefully it will not last.

And there are still the Victor Mesa’s and Pedro Lazo’s whose talent is great enough for the majors, but who refuse to leave their beloved Cuba. Mesa believed he needed to tell us that he continues to love Americans. His smile left no doubt of his sincerity, but we have done little to win that affection and our lack of awareness of the world around us is legendary. Our knowledge of Cuba is no greater than most places, despite its proximity, so most of us assume that ballplayers in Cuba are either not good enough for the majors, have left already, or are chained to the island, waiting to leave.

When I heard recently that Livan Hernandez has declared bankruptcy in Miami, it drove home how precarious a life awaits Cuban ball players who defect. They have neither family nor friends and must play in front of strangers. Castro allowed Hernandez’s mother to leave, but it was a rare exception. No one, not even Peter Bjarkman has ventured into the emotional calculus of love and loss that weighs the dollars gained against the love lost for players who cannot return. The pain that Cuban ballplayers live with is lain on the doorsteps of the oppressive Cuban regime. “Too bad they can’t be like us..” the ugly American says, “then they could have it all.”

The love for Americans in Cuba is not uniform, but there are many Victor Mesas. Kindness was common place in Havana and elsewhere. The children at Villa Clara stadium entertained my wife for the entirety of the game, smiling and playing games with her. But there is a gulf between our countries that is far wider than the Straights of Florida. There is little hope that our country will do much to bridge the chasm in the near future and that is the sad, sad fact.

It would be nice to think that baseball could be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Our small group did what we could, but there is so much more that needs doing. So think about going on the next Cubaball tour. It is a world of fun and the Cuban people are warm and welcoming. That is not just marketing and schmaltz. The unfortunate truth is how desperately they need help. The American dollar goes a long way in Havana. It is still king, though a foul and disagreeable one these days.

 

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