For those of you arriving here from Baseball Musings, this post is part two in a week-long series examining Cuba and the World Baseball Classic. Part One introduced the topic of Cuban Baseball. Part Three examines whether or not Cuba should participate in the World Baseball Classic I hope you will check those pieces out as well.
Tim Wendel, co-founder of Baseball Weekly and Cuban baseball expert, traveled to Cuba for the 1992 Cuban National Series. The National Series is Cuba’s version of a regular season. Featuring 16 teams from all regions – including the rural ones – of Cuba, the National Series draws fans out in droves.
In fact, the popularity of what Americans would consider regular season games is unrivaled anywhere throughout the baseball world. According to Wendel, fans start filling up the 55,000-seat stadium at noon for games that do not start until 7:30 p.m.
Unlike American stadiums, the Cuban estadios do not sell beer during the hours of pre-game ceremonies. In fact, there are no pre-game ceremonies, no video montages of last night’s highlight, no Este Semana en Beisbol to occupy the time. Rather, the fans sit and sit and sit for nearly seven hours talking about – what else? – baseball.
“I thought I knew everything about baseball until I went to Cuba,” Wendel said last Friday during the Inter-American Dialogue sponsored talk Cuba and the World Baseball Classic.
These fans, from the kids in the rural areas to the old men in the parks in Havana, know everything about baseball. And not just Cuban baseball; they know everything about Major League Baseball. They can real off who won what during which season; they can recite rosters and in many cases statistics for any Major League player star or scrub.
But for all of this knowledge, they do not know, according to Wendel, the physical descriptions of Major League Baseball players. Due to the embargo between Cuba and the United States, the MLB games are not broadcast over the air to Cuba.
During his 1992 trip, Wendel was sitting in the lower deck of the stadium in Havana when an older man next to him noted that he was American. This old Cuban baseball fan starting asking Wendel about the 1991 World Series Champion Minnesota Twins. When Wendel started telling him the names of the players, the man cut him off. He knew all of their season statistics and individual accomplishments. “I need to know what they look like,” the Cuban said to Wendel.
In his best Spanish, Wendel spent some time describing the Twins. He talked about their stocky first baseman Kent Hrbek and the pesky rookie Chuck Knoblauch. He described Jack Morris’ poise on the mound and struggled with the Spanish word for bowling ball when Kirby Puckett’s turn arose.
When Wendel was finished with the descriptions, the old man was choked up. “He had tears in his eyes,” Wendel said, “and said, ‘Thank you. Now I know.'”
As Kevin Baxter, international baseball writer for the Miami Herlad and frequent visitor to Cuban baseball games, noted after hearing Wendel’s story, the fans in Cuba have a passion for baseball that arguably runs deeper than the American love of the game. “There are people in St. Paul who don’t want to know about the 1991 Twins,” Baxter said.
Americans tend to view baseball as their own sport. “Here baseball is Mom’s Apple Pie,” Wendel said. “It’s the Fourth of July.” Baseball, in other words, is America.
What Americans do not realize is the popularity of the sport outside of its borders in nearby Caribbean nations and throughout the Pacific Rim. Baseball was introduced to the Cuban island at nearly the same time as it was growing in popularity among Americans. In fact, as Wendel noted, baseball quickly became the sport of the revolution for Cubans fighting for independence.
As the rumor goes, the Spanish colonial rulers at one point had to ban the game because not enough people were going to the bullfights. Since Cubans at bullfights had to pay their respects to Spanish military leaders, baseball games were seen as acts of rebellion. Needless to say, the ban had little effect on the popularity of the sport.
Meanwhile, nearly one hundred and forty years after the Spanish banned the sport, Cubans still see baseball in something of a rebellious light. At the ports of Havana, baseball fans struggle to concoct what Wendel called a baseball tower of Babel. Makeshift radio receivers stretch high in the air in an effort to capture AM radio transmissions of Major League Baseball games. While Cuban police often knockdown these receivers on orders from Fidel Castro, they are rebuilt as quickly as they are destroyed.
Baseball in all its popularity in Cuba could become a common ground for Americans and Cubans. Baseball analysts in America would find their knowledge of the sport eclipsed by fans in Cuba. Baseball players will meet their equals and sometimes their betters on the field of the play. And baseball fans could meet their counterparts who are even more vocal in their patriotic support for their teams.
Yet, the popularity of baseball in Cuba is different than the popularity in America. Cuban baseball players are not rewarded with free agency and lucrative contracts. The top players may earn cars from the government, but these cars – 1959 Chevys – do not set them that far apart from their neighbors. The game in Cuba is still very much a community game. The players live in the same houses as their long-time neighbors. They are very much community participants, and everyone knows them. Baseball in Cuba is still a game, and unlike baseball in the States at times, the Cuban version of baseball very much belongs to the people.
With this popularity of baseball in Cuba comes a variety of concerns about which Americans would never think twice. The league, closely overseen by El Presidente himself, suffers after high-profile defections. Furthermore, the Cuban team is currently the world’s premiere amateur team and Gold Medal defenders at the Olympics. Could the team’s reputation and subsequent popularity on the island take a hit in a tournament that pairs the team up against Major Leaguers instead of college players? This question will weigh heavily on the minds of Cuban baseball officials, WBC officials, and baseball fans over the next few weeks.