Béisbol: A Traveler’s Inside Look at Baseball in Cuba

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Baseball in Cuba - Whenever their team would score a run, the fans would throw chickens in the air to celebrate. Photo by Rob Born
Whenever their team would score a run, the fans would throw chickens in the air to celebrate. Photo by Rob Born

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 and 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.

Classic cars are everywhere in Cuba because of Fidel Castro's ban on car imports. Photo by Rob Born
Classic cars are everywhere in Cuba because of Fidel Castro’s ban on car imports. Photo by Rob Born

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.

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