The Toronto Star, 2007
This picture was taken on a dead hot afternoon in Havana last summer. The kid at the plate, one of the youngest of the bunch with a frame that seems too small for the oversized bat, has just launched an unlikely homerun. The runner at first, tensed and leaning towards second, hasn’t yet left base. The young pitcher is assuming the modern-day crucifixion pose familiar to anyone who’s ever served up a homerun ball: feet stock-still, hands uselessly at his side, chin tipped back as he watches the shot fly over his head. You can just make out the ball against the blue sky.
The photo was taken just days after the end of the World Cup. While Italy was still nursing a collective hangover and the rest of the soccer-mad globe was anxiously awaiting the testimony of expert lip-readers who would reveal whether or not Marco Materazzi had, in fact, called Zinedine Zidane’s mother a whore, Cuba had gone back to baseball.
In the bars in Centro Havana, men drank peso beer and talked about the chances for next year’s Industriales team. On the huge air-conditioned buses that lug tourists from one end of the island to the other, drivers replayed the final game of last year’s World Baseball Classic over and over again.
Cuba had come up short against Japan despite a valiant late-inning rally. The defeat, though, didn’t seem to mar the greatness of the achievement. This is a country that celebrates its Day of the Revolution, not on the anniversary of the day the old regime was successfully overthrown, but in commemoration of a failed attack six years earlier, when an ill-prepared band of guerillas stormed the Moncada Barracks and got obliterated by the army. Noble failure, victory in defeat – these are essentials aspects of Cuba’s national mythology.
It also didn’t hurt that the Cuban team made it further in the competition than the United States.
The fact that the militantly anti-American Cuba has adopted the quintessential American game as its own is an irony worth noting. “How can the national game of the threatening imperial power also define the Cuban nation?” writes Roberto González Echevarría in his excellent history of Cuban baseball. “It is like sharing intimate family habits and rituals with a stranger.”
Of course, as Echevarría knows, the two countries are far from strangers. More like estranged cousins with years of antagonism, name-calling, and failed military invasions between them.
“The process through which national and political identity are defined on the island is a complex mixture of admiration for and rejection of the United States,” Echevarría writes.
Most Cubans are something like the earnest eighteen-year old student I met in Holguin, who criticized America’s foreign policy but expressed a shy admiration for Michael Jackson. “There are people who say that he is just the product of the capitalist system,” he told me quietly, fussing with his shirt. “But I think he has a real talent.”
Baseball is one of those intimate family habits that provide proof of a shared history, whether you care to admit it or not.
The sport arrived on the island in the 1860s, when a couple of Cuban students returned from America with bats and gloves. The game became immediately popular, and by the 1880s virtually every town on the island had at least one baseball team.
Canadians who remember Paul Henderson’s goal in the Summit Series or the 1987 drop pass from Gretzky to Lemieux know the way that sports can galvanize a nation. In Cuba, a soon-to-be country struggling to form its own identity under Spanish colonialism and US influence, baseball quickly became a symbol of national pride.
The fact that the sport was so American only added to its popularity. For Cubans who were increasingly uncomfortable under Spanish rule, baseball was a symbol of all the modernity and civility of the New World. That the Spaniards encouraged Cubans to attend bullfights was further evidence of the crassness and brutality of their Old World thinking.
Take this, from an 1886 edition of El Sport: “It is certain that the game does not belong to us. It has come to us from the North; more than sufficient guarantee that baseball will find a secure place among us, for we recognize that from the North American people there can come nothing that does not teach, that does not moralize, that does not fortify—in a word, that does not serve to fulfill some of the initiatives of the great law of progress that our neighbors have adopted: “Go ahead!”
Since then, attitudes towards the U.S. have obviously changed, and so has the sport.
Shortly after the revolution, Castro dismantled the Cuban professional league and replaced it with an amateur system. La pelota esclava, slave baseball in which players were bought and sold like cattle, would be no more. Instead, Cubans would play la pelota libre – free baseball, the game of the revolution.
In Cuba’s first post-revolution tournament, at around the same time the armed forces were holding off America’s invasion at the Bay of Pigs, the national team was destroying the competition at the Amateur World Series. In the forty years since, the Cuban team has consistently cleaned up in international amateur competitions. The fact that Cuba often ends up facing the United States in the final only makes the victory that much sweeter.
In any case, on the blazing hot afternoon this photo was taken, the socio-political implications of the game were far from anybody’s mind. The kids were just playing ball.
A picture snapped a moment later would have told more of the story: the ball ricocheting high off the worn cement wall at the end of the lot. The bare-chested pitcher lolling his head, limply swinging his glove hand in exaggerated disgust. The batter skipping around the bases, high-fiving the older kids, crossing the plate grinning, arms raised in a gesture that was half ironic imitation of a game-winning-homerun celebration and half the real thing. Pelota libre, or something close to it.