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. 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 and drive farther into the countryside. After an hour, we stumble upon a remote, picturesque village called Pons.
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