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 that 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.
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