One of Pinar Del Rio’s finest pitchers of all time is staring down at me as I step into the batter’s box at Estadio Vinales in the western part of Cuba.
At 6’5” tall with a lanky, athletic frame, Porfirio Pérez was an intimidating presence on the mound in the 1970s when he pitched for the Forstales in Cuba’s top baseball league.
Had he been born in the United States, he likely would have been a major leaguer.
I dig in, sweat dripping off my brow into my eyes in the stifling tobacco country humidity.
Porfirio is entirely comfortable, almost regal, and as he winds up to pitch, his long arm and legs coil and uncoil in perfect balance.
He hides the baseball well into his delivery and the ball starts towards my elbow with surprising velocity.
As I pull my lead arm to my body to avoid getting hit, the ball darts back over the plate just before smacking the catcher’s glove. The umpire emphatically shouts, “Huaaah!”, signifying a called strike.
It’s nearly as good a slider as I saw during my college playing days more than 25 years ago. And Porfirio is in his 60s.
Earlier this year, a team of former Amherst College baseball players traveled to Cuba for a unique baseball barnstorming tour to play five games against teams consisting of former Cuban professional players.
Despite its small size, Amherst College, a liberal arts school in western Massachusetts, has always had strong ties to baseball with a team.
It consistently achieves high Division III rankings, three alumni that held Major League Baseball General Manager positions last season, and the honor of having won the first-ever college baseball game against rival Williams College in 1859.
Seven years after that historic game, the sport was introduced to Cuba by American sailors in the local ports.
Since then, baseball has become a central symbol of Cuban national pride. They live, eat and breathe the game. And they are good. Very good.
Baseball in Cuba
The Cubans approach the game with all the gusto one would expect. But they also are very disciplined, a result of INDER, the Soviet-inspired government athletics institution that systematically trains and funnels promising youths up to Cuba’s version of the Major Leagues, Serie Nacional de Beisbol.
Cuba’s success in international play is legendary. In the 1990s, they compiled a stunning 152-game winning streak. They won nine consecutive World Cup titles from 1984-2005.
have claimed three gold medals and two silver medals in the five Olympics since baseball was added to The Games in 1992. Several of the Cuban players responsible for that extraordinary record are our opponents for the week.
The connective tissue among Amherst baseball players is strong, in large measure because of the shared experience of having played for Coach Bill Thurston, one of the most exacting and successful college baseball coaches of his era.
Our team is comprised of former players from the classes of 1962-2004 and, with a few exceptions, we have not played baseball at any level since college.
Playing Baseball in Cuba
The prospect of playing against former professionals and the fear of getting embarrassed in front of former teammates provides ample incentive to get in baseball shape prior to the tour.
Skills have eroded, some beyond reclamation (pitching velocity), but others are reawakened (hitting and fielding) with practice and patience. In the winter months leading up to our departure, several of us frequent batting cages for the first time in decades.
Giving us a chance to interact with younger players who are both amused by and amazingly supportive of our quest to regain a level of baseball proficiency.
Many of us commit to the trip as a means of marking our entry to middle age. The notion of traveling to Cuba to reunite with former college teammates and play competitive baseball for the first time in 25 years is appealing on multiple fronts.
It represents a new life experience, a physical challenge that encourages goal-oriented training, and a chance to reconnect with some treasured old teammates and friends.
Indeed, the trip seems to address all of the essential conclusions of the seminal Harvard longitudinal study on aging and happiness: keep it fresh, remain physically active, and stay socially connected.
But we are not here to get embarrassed either. Our demanding college coach insisted that the game be played right, and the burden of those expectations has not faded much in 30 years.
We take the training seriously, and it resurrects latent Amherst Baseball IQ and muscle memory. Because we are older, we get injured while training.
But the preparation pays off. And when we take the field in Cuba, we are not a lame fantasy camp team. We can play… just not like the Cubans.
During our tour, we play two games in Vinales, one in Guanajay, one in Matanzas, and one in Mayabeque. Some of these venues are not frequented often by outside visitors.
The rural playing fields are beautifully maintained and the grandstands of the stately if slightly crumbling stadiums hold boisterous local crowds.
In two of the games, the locals fly both the Cuban flag and American flag in centerfield and play our respective national anthems at the outset.
In the smaller venues, the nearby schools are let out to allow the students to attend the games. Everyone is curious about the team from a place called Amherst.
While we hold a lead in each of the five games, and all but one game is close in the end, it quickly becomes clear that the Cubans are playing these games like a bullfight – and we are the bull.
We jump out to a lead, scoring runs off their marginal pitchers, some pushing 70 years old. They follow with a recently retired professional pitcher, who is effectively unhittable, and he shuts us down.
Back and forth until the bottom of the ninth inning, where we are likely facing a former national team member or Olympian, armed with a metal bat, and now fully focused with the game on the line.
Even when it’s inevitable, the Cubans have a flair for the dramatic win. The final record for the Amherst squad: 0-4-1.
On the field, the Cuban players are cagey and competitive, laughing and hustling at the same time with a constant rapid chatter that tests even the most fluent Spanish speakers on the Amherst squad.
When the Game Ends
After the games, we get to know some of the opposing players better over dinner – and way better over bottles of rum. We learn about their impressive baseball accomplishments.
Some of them would have been Hall of Famers had they been allowed to play professionally in the U.S. Lazero Junco, who homered off us in the third game, is the number two all-time HR leader in Cuban baseball history with over 400 HRs.
If not for the cash-starved Cuban government’s sale of his baseball services to a Japanese team late in his career, he would hold the all-time HR title.
A few of the players cautiously share with us some of the realities of life under Castro. One player comments, “Fidel proporciona todo excepto el desayuno, el almuerzo y la cena” (“Fidel provides everything except breakfast, lunch and dinner”).
We learn that the average salary in Cuba is about $20/month and that taxi drivers often earn more than doctors and lawyers because they receive tourist tips.
And we learn that despite the glaring disparity in our abilities and achievements and circumstances, we share their love for the game and their hopes for a brighter future.
Experiences outside of our own games are equally memorable. After a morning game in Vinales, we load our bus with duffel bags of donated Little League baseball gear from our respective hometowns in America.
The Beautiful Baseball Field
We drive farther into the countryside. After an hour, we stumble upon a remote, picturesque village called Pons.
It’s a poor place set amidst expansive tobacco fields and steep-sided limestone hills called mogotes.
In the heart of the village, we find a stunningly beautiful baseball field with a richly colored red dirt infield and a perfectly imperfect white picket fence.
Despite the obvious poverty in the area, the locals have clearly sacrificed to create and maintain the field.
Within minutes of exiting the bus, several children come over to meet us. The crowd grows rapidly when the donated baseball gear comes out.
An informal game follows as the children are eager to test out their new equipment. We laugh at what these Cuban kids would do to our children’s Little League teams. Even the 9-year-olds have long, elegant batting strokes, and they swing hard at everything.
We drive away at sunset wondering if some future baseball superstar will someday emerge from this remote Field of Dreams.
Exploring the Streets
One afternoon in Havana after a game, we break up into small groups and wander through back streets.
The music, the architecture, the dance and, of course, the colorful Cuban people all contribute to a magical mosaic: Pulsing salsa in alleyways, passionate sports debates on street corners, kids playing stick ball games in the streets, and the smell of freshly cooked rice, beans and plantains coming from “paladares” home restaurants.
The crumbling facades and 1950s model Buicks and Chevys create an authentic charm. There is also poverty.
The half-finished infrastructure projects, abruptly halted following the Soviet Union’s collapse over 20 years ago, provide stark symbols of continuing struggles.
The Final Day
On our way to the airport the final day, we are exhausted and humbled by our collective good fortune to have remained fit enough to undertake this incredible trip.
Our guide Elias, who had enjoyed watching us compete against some of his favorite Cuban baseball idols, informed us that Cuban national radio had just reported that a “master class team of baseball players from a university in America”.
It had played a series of competitive games against former Serie Nacional de Beisbol players. Elias was quick to point out that the broadcast had graciously not provided the final record of our tour.
Then he paused for a moment, smiled broadly and proclaimed: “You see, my friends, no particular team won this week. It was baseball that won.”
Author Bio: Rob Born is vice president of corporate and business development at Vocera Communications, Inc. (www.vocera.com), a leading provider of clinical communications systems for healthcare organizations. He was captain of the baseball team at Amherst College, graduating in 1990 with a bachelor of arts degree in English literature.