A Cuban Baseball Experience

Baseball is often known as “America’s National Pastime.” However, a trip to Havana, Cuba, offered me a new perspective.

Upon arrival in Cuba, the presence of baseball was nearly ubiquitous. The first thing that our tour guide, Hiroshi, asked was if we liked sports, and more specifically, baseball. He then continued to tell us he’s a Toronto Blue Jays fan, but since we were from the University of Kansas, he’d be a Kansas City Royals fan for us.

The drive from the airport to the area of Havana where we stayed took roughly 30 minutes. Cuba has a great sense of national pride, and in some instances, baseball represented that. Amidst the buildings and statues, we drove by the stadium where Havana hosted the 2011 Pan American Games. The sun-faded sign featured pictures of Cuban athletes; among them was a baseball player. As we drove into residential areas, children were playing a pick-up game of baseball in the street. Then, despite being in a foreign country, I saw a familiar sight: a Yankees hat.

Throughout the course of history, Cuba has produced a number of Major League stars. Most of which played for the Havana team, Los Industriales, before defecting to the United States. Orlando Hernández, who played for the Yankees in the late 90s and early 2000’s, is still a heavy favorite among Cubans. However, current players like José Abreu, Yoenis Céspedes, Aroldis Chapman, Yasiel Puig, and Kendrys Morales and their respective teams are well known and popular in their home country.

As we began to explore Havana, baseball’s influence became more obvious. Many Cubans wore Major League Baseball hats or t-shirts. Even though the Yankees fans were most visible, 25 of the other 30 MLB teams were represented.

As a Royals fan, many days I wore my KC hat, representing the reigning World Champions. The Royals have ties to Cuba through their designated hitter, Kendrys Morales. Each day that I wore that hat, multiple locals congratulated me or told me an anecdote about Morales such as calling him a “homeboy.” Some even recited the Royals roster to me, which was impressive.

At a local sugar cane juice shop, the bartender asked if we wanted rum in our drinks, only to answer his own question. “Of course you want rum! For the World Champion Royals!”

Though I didn’t see a Royals hat until a few days into the trip, the knowledge and excitement that the Cubans had for this Midwest team was impressive.

Finally, we were able to experience Cuban baseball for ourselves at Estadio Latinoamericano. (To explain my emotions as excited was an understatement, at this point.)

While driving into the neighborhood, it became pretty clear that baseball is a big deal around there. A building is painted to match the Industriales uniform, including the script “I” found on the teams’ hats. Generally, government propaganda is prevalent in Cuba, but across from the stadium, it had a large baseball and a Cuban flag. In Spanish, the sign translated to “The triumph will be in the strength of all.”

Hiroshi, dressed in a Toronto hat and Industriales t-shirt, led us into Estadio Latinoamericano. Before going in, he greeted a friend who happened tbe wearing Royals gear. The hometown support was a welcoming sight.

The game we attended was the first game of a doubleheader at 10 a.m.. Though the stadium wasn’t full, it could hold up to 55,000 people, making it the largest stadium in Latin America. As we walked into Estadio Latinoamerica, the layout was just like any ballpark; however, the atmosphere was in a league of its own.

Seemingly everyone had plastic horns, everyone cheered, and people were invested in the game. Hiroshi warned us that borderline calls could stir up arguments between fans. For a morning game, everything about the stadium had an electric buzz.

The further we walked into the stadium, the more MLB gear I noticed. I stopped and talked to a few people in Royals attire. One of them showed me an inscription in his hat that read “Go Royals! Love, Peter.” He explained that a friend from the United States sent the special souvenir to him.

Once the game began, we settled into our seats. Mine was near Hiroshi. We were sitting ten rows behind home plate, and we paid roughly $3 for the prime seats. The first pitch was in for a strike, and it was baseball as usual. It was simpler than Major League stadiums; however, the love of the game was evident.

The teams didn’t carry a 25-man roster like Major League teams, and most players could play multiple positions. In between innings, the teams held meetings on the field behind first base. The umpires were brought coffee during the 7th inning stretch, a Cuban tradition.

As I watched the game unfold, I was curious to know more about Cuban baseball. Hiroshi explained to me that the Yankees are popular because they are “proven champions.” He continued and explained that many Cubans cheer for the Yankees, Real Madrid (soccer), and Los Industriales for this reason, and coincidentally, they all wear blue and white uniforms. His favorite player was Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez.

By now, some of the locals sitting around us were equally curious to know about baseball in the United States. The first question they asked was who the best player was. Unable to narrow it down to one player, I replied with Clayton Kershaw, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, or maybe Lorenzo Cain. They nodded in agreement, recognizing all of those names and their feats.

The next question was about tickets. The Cubans were aware that our stadiums were nicer in comparison to theirs, but when they heard the prices for the seats behind home plate (or seats for the World Series), the numbers blew them away.

I finally asked the question that had been on my mind since we landed in Cuba. “What was Kendrys Morales like here?”

Hiroshi’s smirked grew to a smile. He told me that he was a childhood friend to Morales growing up. Hiroshi explained that his uncle managed Morales for the Industriales, and Hiroshi and Morales were teammates to an extent. Despite a small feud over a girl, Hiroshi said they were “buddies.” On the field, Morales was a sensation. He could play all nine positions, and Estadio Latinoamerica would sell out to see Morales play. Hiroshi explained the fans would all wear his jerseys, and girls would paint “8” on their faces. When I envisioned the Estadio Latinoamerica going crazy for Morales, it looked similar to Kauffman Stadium during his home run off of Dallas Keuchel in the 2015 American League.

The Morales frenzy was short in Cuba, as he only played roughly two seasons before being banned and eventually defecting to the United States. Ultimately, many of the best Cuban players defect to the United States to play in the Major Leagues.

The logo on my hat stretched across borders, opening up conversation with many Cubans. Baseball is more than just a sport there. It’s part of the culture. The people are passionate about it, and their love of the game is evident. As relations between Cuba and the United States evolve, I can only hope that one day Cubans will be able to truly experience Major League Baseball.

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Written in January 2016.