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Baseball Bond

My hand stung with pain, even through the leather padding.  That’s what I remember about the first time I caught a baseball thrown by one of my Cuban friends.  I smiled to mask the burning sting and casually returned the ball to the shortstop.   We had finally worn out our visitors’ prerogative playing volleyball, Frisbee, and soccer.  Now the Cubans wanted us to engage in THEIR sport: baseball.

So we gathered up the gear; two bats, one ball, and a canvass bag of gloves that would be shared by both teams.   The neighborhood baseball field was well used, but carefully maintained, and I wondered how they kept the grass clipped so short.  I had never seen a lawn mower in Cuba except for one that had been hand made with an electric motor mounted over a piece of plywood.  When the motor was plugged in, two unguarded machete blades spun below it, attached only by a washer and nut on the motor’s axle..

The field was well cared for, but the spectator accommodations were another story.  A few ruins of crumbling concrete still stood to remind us that they had once held bleachers. But that was some 50 years ago before the revolution brought “progress” to the country.  Behind the plate a chain link screen hung from its frame, rusted and patched, swaying in the dusty wind.

People heard that the Americans were playing baseball with the local boys and a small crowd of mostly women and children began to gather. Isaac called all the players out to the pitcher’s mound to choose captains and teams.  When we joined them, Isaac quickly grew tense.  I knew the look and what it meant, but offered him no help, I made him say it.  He walked over to me and nodded toward the American girls.  “What are they doing here?”

“They’re playing baseball,” I said, “same as you.”

Two of the girls were chosen for each team, and I said a little prayer for their safety and our national pride.  I shouldn’t have worried, the Cubans ended up impressed by their skill and their fearlessness.

After the first inning of play, my team was down by 3, and I asked the captain what we were going to do to win.  “We won’t win,” he said, “they have Andrés on their team.”  He was right, of course, there was no amount of strategy that was going to overcome Andrés.   At 6’6, and with rock solid athleticism, Andrés towered above his Cuban contemporaries.  They were all good – some truly gifted players –  but when Andrés was on deck, little boys left their mothers to go stand beyond the outfield and look for our  only baseball, a ball that was about to soar over the homerun fence.

When the game was finally over I asked one of my team mates, “Why didn’t you just walk him and give our team a chance?”  I was immediately ashamed of myself for asking and even though the question went unanswered, I knew.  The truth was, a game won by walking the other team’s best player was worse than a game lost.

Osci came to the filed just as we were throwing the gloves back into the equipment bag.  It was almost time to eat. “How would you like to experience ‘real’ Cuban baseball?” he asked. “There is a game tonight between two teams from the Cuban Baseball System.”  I looked at my group and saw their eyes shining in anticipation through their dust matted faces.

That night we hired a bus to take eight Americans and eleven Cubans to Pinar del Rio for a game.  When we arrived at the stadium, the parking lot was empty, but the stadium was nearly full.  People came by foot, bike, bus, and hitchhike. But few had a car of their own to drive.   I bought everyone’s tickets for the game, costing a total of around eleven U.S. dollars, and we began climbing the steps into the stadium.  We had box seats along the first base line. They were wooden seats, but many were missing slats and others broken beyond use.  Our Cuban hosts checked each one to assure its safety before letting us sit.

When the teams entered the field there was a fury of cheers and boo’s, standing and high fives.   And by the second pitch we heard the crack of the bat. A base hit to right field welcomed us to the national sport of Cuba.

Isaac sat in the front row, cheering and yelling with wild abandon.  All of the Cubans expressed their passion for the game, but Isaac was different.  Isaac was formed purely from passion and personality. He screamed and mocked and laughed and sprang uncontrollably from his seat, sometimes hanging dangerously over the rail above the opposing team’s dugout.   After one player was thrown out at first, I thought Isaac might be evicted as he taunted and provoked the poor guy who walked with his head down back toward his bench.  Just before ducking into the dugout, the man made eye contact with Isaac, giving him a look that threatened a meeting later in a back alley.   Isaac simply escalated his rant, arms flying in a whirl.  I couldn’t understand the rapid fire slang, but was intently watching the drama of it all. Osci looked over at me and chuckled.  “What is he saying?” I asked.

“Well, that player was on the team that played for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic this year.  He dropped a fly ball in the final game against Japan.  Many people think that error was responsible for Cuba losing the championship.  Isaac was just reminding him of that.”  We both laughed and I turned around to repeat the story in English to my group.

Behind our box seats were the ‘cheap’ seats – oversized concrete steps that doubled as bleachers.  But other than the Spartan accommodations for the crowd, the rest of the stadium looked like any minor league stadium in the U.S.  A perfectly manicured field, with a carefully raked infield and straight chalked lines, was surrounded by bright green grass that sparkled in the reflections of the setting sun and blazing field lights.

By the third inning, the few empty seats around us began to fill with young men who seemed more interested in our group of Americans than the game itself.  Before long two policemen pulled Osci aside and talked to him.  “What was that about?” I asked when he returned.

“They want us to stay here after the game is over and to be the last to leave the stadium,” he said as my eyes widened.  “They are worried that we have attracted too much attention and they want to escort us back to our bus after the game to avoid trouble.”

A little later I smelled food and looked around to see what the culture had to offer.  I saw popcorn and hand wrapped caramels.  Some people brought bread from their monthly rations, smeared with mayonnaise.  But I smelled something else; something was being deep fried in grease.  Then I saw him – an old man standing at a table on the landing between our section and the bleachers.  He had a large bowl of batter and an electric pot of boiling grease.  I watched as he scooped balls of the batter into the pot, letting it sizzle to a golden brown. He then retrieved them with a wire mesh spoon and dropped them into sheets of newsprint. 

“I want some of that,” I told Osci, reaching for my wallet.

He stopped me.  “You don’t want that,” he said.  “The cooks will make us something good when we return.”

“I want to experience Cuban baseball,” I said.  “All of it.”

Osci shrugged, took a small bill from my wallet and asked me to stay.  He returned with three of the things wrapped in oily paper and we passed them around, ripping off pieces of the soft dough and crispy crust, licking the crumbs and grease from our fingers.  It tasted of salt and garlic and an herb that I couldn’t place.   Osci shook his head.

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