The red team bus rumbles over rough roads cut through the green countryside of Pinar del Rio at the western tip of the island. It is nearly dusk, and the insistent verdancy of the rolling landscape is muted by a soft gray rain. Reynaldo Fernandez, an outfielder and designated hitter for the Camag√ºeyanos, the new baseball champions of Cuba, stares listlessly out a rain-washed window at passing banana trees and rice paddies. A portable radio spewing Latin music is fixed to his ear. The bus nearly stops as it crosses a narrow, rutted bridge. In a field below, a farm girl waves at the strangers. Fernandez, who is 22, nods his approval to a seatmate. He is wearing one of the red "Campeons" knit shirts that were awarded the players after their triumphant season, and tight-fitting white double-knit slacks. He slouches low in his seat, because like most of his teammates, he is more tired now than elated. Camag√ºey had clinched the championship several days earlier and then, with nothing more to gain, had lost the final three games of the season to Pinar del Rio. The players had been away from home for nine days, sleeping, as visiting Cuban players do, in bunks set up in the stadium locker rooms, eating mostly from clubhouse kitchens, scarcely leaving the ball park, eating and sleeping baseball. It is all over now, and it will be good to be home again.
"I hope I'm not too busy tonight," Fernandez says to a teammate. "I just may go look for women and dance."
But the looking will be hours away. The drive from the Captain San Luis Stadium in Pinar del Rio to the San Julian Air Base will require two hours. There will be nearly an hour's wait among ferocious mosquitoes at the base, and the flight, aboard a small, Soviet-built passenger plane, will last two hours. There will be no champagne on this flight, only ham sandwiches and orange juice, fare hardly appropriate to champions.
But as the little plane drops in for a landing at the Ignacio Agramonte Airport in Camag√ºey, hordes of well-wishers are massed at the terminal. Their welcoming cheers are heard above the roar of the engines as the plane taxies onto the apron. The crowd surges forward when the engines stop. A band is playing spiritedly, though it can barely be heard through the din. Red and white banners salute the team, Camag√ºey's first to win the national championship. They also salute the revolution, which is comparable in the United States to hailing democracy. A committee hurtles forward to welcome the champions and Carlos Gomez, their boy manager. Gomez, 29, is a physical education instructor whose own playing career ended in the ninth grade. College-educated theoreticians are more numerous among Cuban managers than field-trained Sparky Andersons.
Flags flap lazily in the warm evening breeze. "Viva Camag√ºeyanos!" "Viva Béisbol!" Television lights illuminate the scene as the players are shepherded to a column of Soviet-made jeeps that will transport them in triumph up the Avenida Doble Villa, where crowds five deep await the Camag√ºeyanos, to the Plaza de Caridad, where there are thousands of Other celebrants. There is to be a "Festival of Baseball," and it does not seem possible that there is a man, woman or child among the city's 200,000 inhabitants who is not on the streets this magical night. Busloads of children follow the jeep caravan, the youngsters hanging out the windows and banging the sides of the buses in rhythm to the Spanish equivalent of "We're No. 1." Other children and adults scamper alongside the jeeps, shouting out their heroes' names—"Cruz!" "Diaz!" "Hernandez!" Some leap aboard and dance on the seats.
At the plaza, everyone is dancing—a pretty red-haired young girl with a portly man in a floppy straw hat, a shrunken old man all alone, whirling crazily in widening circles. There are chunks of ice on the sidewalks, and the good Cuban beer is everywhere (10,000 cases of it will be quaffed in a 12-block area this night). The players are hurried by the police and their auxiliaries through the roistering masses to a reception given them and their families by INDER, the National Sports Institute, in a courtyard secluded from the main plaza. But the townspeople, unaccustomed in a socialist society to such exclusivity, rush the gates to the yard, bending them perilously near to breaking, flattening the police protectors against the gates like cartoon characters. It takes perhaps an hour for the authorities to drive the celebrants off. Later there are renewed assaults on the barricades.
In the courtyard, the players dance and eat and laugh and drink with the invited guests. A band—a tenor saxophone, three electric guitars, an electric piano and drums—doggedly blasts a tune composed for the occasion, Camag√ºey Campeons.
No one can say how many revelers there are (the estimates would go as high as several hundred thousand), but there can be no question that the enthusiasm for baseball in this ancient and cobble-stoned city in the heart of communist Cuba is big league. So unrestrained is the outpouring of affection for the champions, the celebration could just as well be happening in another heartland city, Cincinnati, Ohio.
The next day, Miguel Cuevas is burdened with what he euphemistically describes as "a certain grogginess." He is the greatest living baseball hero in Camag√ºey, probably in all of Cuba. Three times he led the National Series, the Cuban major league, in homers and runs batted in. His 86 RBIs during the 54-game season in 1968 are a record, and he is the career RBI leader in Cuban baseball. He was batting champion in 1966 and led the league in hits in 1964. He was named the Outstanding Player in the Province of Camag√ºey every year from 1963 through 1968 and again in 1970, and he was Cuba's Outstanding Player from 1966 through '68. He is an outfielder on the Cuban all-time All-Star team. If he is not the Babe Ruth of his country, he is at least its Joe DiMaggio. "He is an idol," says Havana journalist Jaime Caminada. "Everywhere he walks on the streets, he is recognized. In a baseball crowd, even Fidel would not receive the recognition of Don Miguel." It is always "Fidel" in Cuba, never President Castro, SPORT IS THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE—FIDEL reads a typically huge poster on the walls of the Havana sports coliseum. And it is always "Don Miguel," a mark of the respect given the retired player. We would call him "Mike."
Don Miguel may appear a trifle wan the day after the great celebration, but he is alert, nevertheless. And at 42, he remains athletically trim and muscular through the shoulders. Slightly balding, mustachioed and chocolate-colored, he looks like a Moorish lord. The living room of his tidy, two-story home in Camag√ºey is dominated by the fierce image of Che Guevara staring balefully from the wall behind the Don's favorite chair. After a few days in Cuba, the omnipresent visages of Fidel, Che and the 19th-century poet martyr, José Martí, become as familiar as wallet photos of one's own children. In photographs or as statues, these giants seem to gaze down on you from every building. On another wall in Cuevas' home is a giant scroll commemorating his retirement from baseball three years ago after 20 seasons of distinguished play. It is personally signed by Fidel, a signal honor, the only such scroll ever awarded a Cuban ballplayer.
But Cuevas is not so much occupied with his baseball past this day as with his teaching future. Only 20 days before, he received his degree as an instructor of physical education. For the past few years he has been teaching 11-to 18-year-old schoolchildren the finer points of hitting a baseball. His goal now is to be as fine a teacher as he was a player. He is a proud man, and his sleepy eyes brighten as he recalls his arduous climb up the academic ladder.
"I had only a seventh-grade education until 1964," he says earnestly. "From then on, I played baseball. I studied and I worked in the sugar refineries. Before the revolution, I looked for a way of life and could not find it. I would work in the factories and play baseball for the owners. If there was a poor sugar harvest, I might work only three months of the year. I had peon jobs. I was badly off. I had no home and little work. I was living with my mother-in-law. I really can't explain how it was. I was on the streets often, out of work and broke. Oh, I guess I had the opportunity to play professional baseball, but I never did sign. I spent my time before the revolution looking for something to do. After the revolution, I was a baseball player, a worker and a student. It wasn't a thing of making a living. Playing ball gave me a life-style. It made it possible for me to get what I always wanted—a diploma, this house for my 10 children."
Most Cuban ballplayers deny that baseball, the national sport, has provided them with anything more than a few shortcuts through the sometimes unfathomable bureaucratic maze. The game cannot be a full-time occupation. All Cubans must either work or go to school. To take time off from their principal occupations to play baseball, athletes must acquire a sports license. And when the season is over, they must return to the job or the classroom. "Any worker could have what I have," Sandalio Hernandez, Camag√ºey's star centerfielder, claims. "Playing baseball just made it a little easier to get things." However, Cuevas freely acknowledges that the game has given him everything—home, furnishings, television set, Russian car. But, as a national hero, he is considered an exception.
Unlike the children of the revolution, Cuevas retains a lively interest in American baseball, although he is finding it increasingly difficult because big league scores are no longer printed in the government-owned Cuban newspapers, and television coverage is rare. His American heroes are the heroes of his boyhood.
"I have seen many films of Ruth, Gehrig, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio," he says. "I modeled my batting stance on DiMaggio's—feet spread far apart. Ah, the Yankee Clipper. You see, I know the nicknames. But I always loved the Brooklyn team. I don't think anyone in Cuba worked the day Don Larsen pitched the perfect game against the Dodgers in 1956. I felt bad for what happened to my team, but good for Larsen. So many Cubans tried to copy his way of pitching without a windup after that, but the style was his, not ours. Ah, that game stands out the most for me. The Yankees! Those damn Yankees! But Brooklyn was my team. They broke the black barrier. It was Brooklyn that accepted Jackie Robinson. Oh, I saw the film The Jackie Robinson Story many times. The difficulties he had. The problems he faced. I could feel for him. And how good it was of players like Pee Wee Reese to accept him. Reese was admired very much in Cuba for that. I cannot say that race was the only reason I liked the Dodgers, but it certainly helped. You must realize we are just normal people here. The only difference between your players and ours is that yours are paid and ours have jobs."
The American influences on Cuban life, sporting and otherwise, necessarily ceased after Fidel's revolution succeeded in January 1959, but remarkably enough, many of those pre-Castro influences persist to this day. For a visitor from the United States, entering today's Cuba is like eerily stepping into another generation, like discovering oneself adrift in a Guy Madison movie, like climbing again into the back seat of a familiar car with the prom queen. The years—20, 25 of them—slip gently away. The automobiles laboring down Cuban streets and highways are relics from the '40s and the '50s, dogged survivors of commerce between the two nations. They putter past in memory-jogging profusion, those upside-down bathtub Nashes, those Kaisers and Henry J's, those Studebakers that seemed to head in two directions at once, those tail-finned monstrosities from General Motors. There are even Edsels. Could that be the '48 Buick that was rammed into a light standard after the party at Bob Vance's house so long ago? Is that the '50 Ford that was stolen outside the Telegraph Hill apartment house? There they are, these motorized ghosts, still running—or not running, because the spectacle of a disabled '52 Ford, its ancient hood raised, anxious motorist peering hopelessly at decrepit innards, is as common to modern Cuba as a Martí bust outside a school building.
Ask a Cuban player which American player has influenced him most, and he will name Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle. They have seen the training films, the last shipped here before relations between Cuba and the U.S. disintegrated. But if one has access, as some Cuban journalists do, to foreign wire-service reports, it is possible that the name Johnny Bench will stand for something other than personalized furniture. Caminada, the INDER magazine writer, keeps up. "We will see when Joe Morgan [the two names become one: Joemorgan] gets here, if he can get to second base," he says. And Caminada's colleague, Edel Casas, keeps up, too. Every day he saunters down the street to Agence France Presse to learn how many homers Reggie Jackson has hit. Caminada and Casas are Yankee fans, convinced that the game's most bloated capitalists have spent their money wisely.
Cuevas, the old ballplayer, also has done pretty well at following the modern game. He lags only about 10 years behind. During a recent discussion of batting techniques, he felt compelled to rise to his feet and demonstrate a point. "They pitch Lou Brock outside all the time." He assumes a left-handed stance as he speaks of the 1967 World Series between the Cardinals and the Red Sox. "They pitch him outside, and he hits the ball to left field. 'Aha,' say the Red Sox, 'We will pitch him inside now. That will stop him.' So they do." Cuevas takes a hefty swing with his imaginary bat. "Home run! That Lou Brock. He is a good hitter."
An estimated 493,000 Cubans out of a total population of about nine million play some form of organized baseball, either in school or in the complicated system established by the government's Cuban Baseball Federation. In essence, the season runs the year round, though at the very top level it lasts only from late February through early May. It involves a fiercely competitive weeding-out process that begins in the towns and villages and finishes at what might be called the super-provincial level. From the multitude of municipal teams, the best players are selected to represent the 14 provinces. After a 39-game season at this level, the best of these players are picked to play on the seven teams representing the seven original provinces (Cuba was segmented into 14 provinces in May of 1975). All the players are on teams representing their home provinces, so that fan identification is an important factor. In Cuba, the home team is just that.
The seven top teams then play a 54-game schedule that is called the National Series. The winner, Camag√ºey this year, is the national champion. It is possible, under this rather involved system, for a player to perform for as many as three teams, all based relatively near his home, and to appear in many more than 100 games. However, the best players compete only on the provincial and super-provincial levels in a season of 93 games (39 provincial, 54 super-provincial) that lasts 4½ months.
But baseball does not end for the country's stars with the crowning of the national champion, because from the seven teams in the National Series an All-Star squad is selected to represent Cuba in international competition. Because only amateur teams take part in international baseball, Cuba is unexcelled in this sort of play. For example, its national team has not lost in the prestigious Pan-American Games since 1967. Playing on the national team, representing the country against other nations, is considered the ultimate distinction in Cuban baseball. A player's worth is measured not in pesos, but by the number of times he has been selected for the national team.
Beyond the considerable honor involved, playing on the national team offers rare opportunities for travel. Cue-vas has performed in Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Korea, China, India, Egypt, Russia, East and West Germany, England and Canada. Even a somewhat lesser star, Camag√ºey's Hernandez (a .321 hitter), has played extensively in Europe and in Central and South America. Thus, the allure of playing for the New York Yankees is lost on Cuban players reared since the revolution. "To defend Cuba in international competition is what we strive for," says Hernandez. Unpaid, the Cuban plays for honor, pride, patriotism, fan adulation and government fringe benefits, not necessarily in that order. These, apparently, are reward enough. When the splendid young Las Villas rightfielder, Lourdes Gourriel, was asked if he would accept $1 million to play major league baseball in the United States, he looked as indignant as if someone had proposed that he seek employment in some tenderloin district massage parlor. "I do not," he replied in a level tone, "sell myself for money."
More's the pity, for a player of Gourriel's youth and natural ability would have big league scouts weeping tears of gratitude in backwater Holiday Inns all across the U.S. Six-feet-one and 180 pounds, he is a 19-year-old former sprinter who has a fine throwing arm and who hit .348 in this, his rookie season in the National Series. The Cuban stars' apparent unwillingness to defect and pursue the rich and merry life of a big-leaguer confounds some American baseball people. Preston Gomez, a Dodger coach and a Cuban, feels his countrymen are missing an opportunity for growth. After a recent visit to Cuba he said, "Baseball is the only sport there where the players don't have the opportunity to compete with those better than they are.... Those players reach a certain age, and then they stand still. They don't make progress. They have several players there that, if they had had the opportunity five or six years ago to come to the States, would be playing in the big leagues now." Irrelevant, say the Cubans. "We have our game," says Las Villas First Baseman Antonio Munoz, "and you have yours."
The Cuban fan has at least one profound advantage over his American counterpart: admission to all games is free. He pays only for his food and his beloved beer, though the brew is sold exclusively at bars beneath the stands and may not be carried back to the seats. Because all of the National Series ball parks have been built—or, like the 46-year-old Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, rebuilt—since the revolution, they are generally comfortable, though hardly as plush as the more modern American stadiums. The country's oldest ball park, in Matanzas, erected in the 19th century, is being converted into a hall of fame to accommodate artifacts of Cuba's rich baseball history.
The first game in Cuba was played on Dec. 27, 1874 with Havana defeating the home team, Matanzas, 51-9. The Havana leftfielder that day was Emilio Sabourín, who was to become the A. G. Spalding of Cuban baseball. He was influential in the organization of the country's first—and the world's second—professional league in 1878. It was formed only two years after the National League in the U.S. Sabourín achieved coveted martyrdom at 44 when he died in the Spanish prison, Castillo del Hacha, on July 5, 1897 during what Cubans rightfully call their war for independence and we have named—eschewing any reference to the principal combatant—the Spanish-American War.
Cuban baseball prospered after his death. The country took to the game with an enthusiasm rivaled only by that of its neighbor to the north. A number of pro leagues were formed, and Havana was represented in the American minor leagues, most notably in the Triple-A International League from 1954 to 1960. Most of the best players made their way to the States. Altogether, 98 Cubans have either played or managed in the major leagues, including such longtime stars as Pitcher Adolfo Luque, who won 194 games in his 20-year career and 27 in the 1923 season for Cincinnati, and Minnie Minoso, now a White Sox coach, whose last at bat a year ago made him one of only a handful of players whose careers have spanned four decades. The contemporary Cuban stars of U.S. baseball are Tony Perez, Mike Cuellar, Luis Tiant, Bert Campaneris, Jose Cardenal and Tito Fuentes. And it was a Cuban, Miguel (Mike) Gonzalez, a former manager and player, who coined one of the game's more memorable expressions: "Good field, no hit."
One Cuban who did not find his way into the major leagues was Martín Dihijo, whom many consider the finest player the island has ever produced. An outfielder and pitcher of Ruthian versatility, Dihijo, a black, had the bad timing to reach maturity during the 1930s, when baseball in the United States was a white man's game. Until his recent selection to Cooperstown by the special committee on black players, Dihijo's fame had not reached beyond his island, but it long has been firmly entrenched there. His bust is alongside the revered Luque's in the foyer of the Estadio Latinoamericano.
The Estadio itself is really two ball parks, pre-and post-revolution. The 46-year-old covered grandstand has been gussied up with fresh paint and new seats. The outfield sections were completed in 1971 by volunteer labor, the product of revolutionary sporting fervor. The whole—25,000 old seats, 30,000 new-looks as if it is one part Comiskey Park and one part Riverfront Stadium. The hybrid is Cuba's largest stadium, an impressive structure for all the commingling. The outfield fences are somewhat closer to the plate than in most major league parks—325 feet at the foul lines, 345 in the power alleys and 400 to dead center—but the air is heavy and balls do not seem to carry well. The fences are painted a subdued green, unblemished, of course, by advertising signs, there being none in Cuba. However, the foul poles are lighted for night games, an innovation the big leagues would do well to consider. The electric scoreboard does not transmit quizzes and cartoons, nor does it welcome Kiwanians from Matanzas, but it does list the batting orders and advise the fans of each hitter's average.
A May 7 doubleheader at the Estadio matched second-place Las Villas with third-place Havana. Cuban games begin precisely as scheduled, and this twin bill was under way at 6 p.m. sharp, following the playing of the Himno National, an anthem from Martí's, not Castro's, revolution. The four umpires offered the first stark contrast, a sartorial one. with the American game. While they wore the traditional dark blue hats and trousers, their silken shirts were of a luminescent magenta. The Las Villas team was all in orange, an outfit pioneered and ultimately rejected by the Baltimore Orioles. Havana was stylistically indebted to the Reds, with white double-knits, red stockings and caps. There was a notable absence of uniformity at shortstop—Las Villas' Pedro Jova sported a green batting helmet and Havana's Rodolfo Puente appeared all in shocking pink, the result, one assumes, of carelessly tossing his uniform socks in the wash with his trousers and shirt.
There were several immediately apparent differences between the Cuban game and the one played in the American and National Leagues. For the first time in the National Series, Cuban hitters this year were swinging aluminum bats, which are manufactured in the United States, but obtained through friendlier Central American countries. The metal bats have the twin virtues of lasting longer and costing the government less. They have also led to dramatic increases in both batting averages and home runs. The bat controversy in Cuba is comparable to the artificial-turf issue in American baseball, with the anti-aluminum forces insisting that such artificiality leads to inflated averages and affects the continuity of the game.
But Cuban pitchers are not without their own resources. For one, they are not required to toss up a lily-white ball on every delivery. A Cuban ball is allowed to stay in play long after its whiteness has turned to yellow or green, so that in a twilight game, the ball must appear to the hitters as if it were a section of the fence rushing toward them. Not even foul balls hit into the stands disappear from the game: in the interests of the national economy, they are returned to the field by the spectators. Those fans with strong enough arms risk the long throw onto the field from the back seats. Others simply pass the pelota forward until someone nearer the field can bounce it back into action. It is a cooperative effort that seems possible only in a controlled society. The last time it happened in the U.S. must have been during World War II, when the squandering of any product seemed an act of treason.
Under any circumstances, Cubans cannot be much for souvenir hunting. There are no peddlers inside or outside the parks, and with free admission, there are no cap, bat, jacket or what-have-you days. The Cuban fan waves no pennant, wears no button or jacket that would identify him with his team. Instead, he sits there in the national uniform—colored sport shirt and lightweight slacks. Because there has been a paper shortage for the past year, he does not even use a scorecard. Still, he stays in the game, rising up. as he cannot against his government, to question the authority of the umpires. He bellows insults at the opposing team and generally misbehaves as baseball fans everywhere do.
There were perhaps 5,000 fans in the Estadio at the start of the Las Villas-Havana doubleheader, but by the beginning of the second game, their number had increased to about 20,000, close to the average crowd for games in the ball park. Roughly two million fans watched the 90 games played by the two Havana teams this spring. That, of course, is an estimate, there being no tickets or turnstiles.
Cuban players are not permitted to appear on the field with long hair or beards, though some shave the regulation with rakish sideburns and tasteful mustaches. In matters tonsorial, all Cuban teams look like the Cincinnati Reds, who are similarly restricted. There is no artifical turf in Cuba, and the basepaths are swept in the middle innings, not by nubile teenagers in hot pants, but by middle-aged groundkeepers in coveralls. The umpires are generally successful at speeding up the action, and few Cuban games last longer than two hours. Despite a 10-1 Havana win in the first game, the Las Villas-Havana doubleheader required only 4½ hours—or about as long as it takes the Phillies and the Cubs to play nine innings in Wrigley Field on a day when the wind is blowing out.
There were several players on both sides good enough to arouse one's old scouting instincts. The lean and swift Gourriel was one. Jova, the shortstop in the green hat, was another. In the third inning of the first game, he roamed well behind second base to take a hit away from Havana's Eulogio Osorio. And in the eighth inning of the second game, he started an inning-ending double play with a brilliant backhand stab. He is lanky in the Mark Belanger mold, nearly as quick as Dave Concepcion, and he is only 25. Havana's second baseman, Rey Vicente Anglada, fields well, hits .300 and leads the league in stolen bases. "The Joemorgan of Cuba," he is called by Jaime Caminada, who admits to being an unbending Havana zealot. Mu√±oz, Las Villas' 28-year-old first baseman, looks like a left-handed Tony Perez. At 6'2½" and 210 pounds, he is known as El Gigante del Escambray, a reference to his size and to his home in the mountains of central Cuba. The Cubans have a refreshing penchant for nicknaming their favorites, a practice sadly fallen into disuse among the more jaded U.S. fans. Mu√±oz is such an effective pull hitter that opponents position their shortstop on the right-field side of second base whenever he comes up. It is known, naturally, as "the Williams Shift." Agustín Marquetti, the Havana first baseman, is an even more powerful hitter—he holds the National Series home run record of 21.
But easily the most impressive player on either team and, quite possibly in all of Cuba, is Las Villas' third baseman, 21-year-old Pedro José (Cheito) Rodriguez, a heavily muscled. 5'10", 190-pound longshoreman. Last year Rodriguez became the youngest player ever selected to the National Team, and if he should continue to play in Cuba, as he stoutly says he will, he should set a record for number of appearances on the squad. This season he led the National Series in home runs with 16. He is also a nimble fielder with a good arm. He has ambitions of becoming the best in his game, and he has an amiable disposition. Buy the house a round at the Holiday Inn!
In the second game of the Las Villas-Havana doubleheader, Rodriguez started two double plays with exceptional stabs behind third and drove in three runs with a bases-loaded single and a line-shot home run that carried more than 400 feet into the left center-field bleachers. Twice he was intentionally walked.
But, like his teammate, Gourriel, he is a Cuban first, a ballplayer next. He is intrigued by the possibility of soon playing against a big league All-Star team, because it would offer him a chance to test his skills against the acknowledged best. He insists his interest in U.S. baseball stops there. "I want to play against the Americans," he said from his bunk in the Havana clubhouse. "Not with them." Hold that round!
The Cuban hitters, swinging their metal bats, seem lethal enough, and the fielding is generally of a high order. The outfielders run and throw with at least Triple-A skills, and shortstops like Jova have fine mobility. The Cubans are superb bunters, although their affection for this tactic seems almost obsessive. Gourriel, the .348 hitter, sacrificed against Havana with his team leading 5-2 in the late innings, hardly the occasion for a one-run-at-a-time strategy.
An acknowledged weakness is the pitching. Most Cuban pitchers are junk-ball specialists, sidearm curveballers who either will not or cannot throw the high hard one. In an admittedly cursory examination of the Cuban game, only one pitcher, Havana's Manuel Rivero, was seen to cut lose, an overhand delivery, and he was too wild to be effective. "The three-quarter or sidearm style is easier to control," explains Pinar del Rio's Julio Romero, who has won as many as 10 games in National Series play. "Because most of the hitters here are right-handed, the sidearm pitch is harder to hit." Perhaps, but there seems to be an excess of Cuellar and too little Seaver in the Cuban pitcher's makeup. There also seems to be a significant shortage of good lefthanders with control, Las Villas' Aniceto Montes de Oca being a notable exception. But he, too, is a sidewinder.
The most baffling aspect of the Cuban game is a propensity for the bonehead play. A game will progress smoothly, even brilliantly, and then a totally alien element will be introduced. It is as if Laurel and Hardy were to appear without warning in an Ingmar Bergman film. Some Cuban games are reminiscent of the old vaudeville routine where immaculately attired ballroom dancers performed with great skill and grace until one of them, usually the woman, took a pratfall. There were enough of these maddening, near-comic blunders in the final three games of the Cuban season to transform Alvin Dark into an apostle of Beelzebub.
In the second inning of the first Havana-Las Villas game, Las Villas' Valentin Leon neglected, for some unfathomable reason, to slide on a steal attempt, allowing himself to be caught at second by a poor throw from Havana Catcher Pedro Medina. An inning later, Las Villas base runner Alberto Martinez tarried so long at third when a low throw bounced past Marquetti at first that he was easily nailed at the plate after he belatedly decided to make a run for it. In the eighth inning, Marquetti countered with his own base-running boner, standing transfixed between first and second with one out as a pop-up settled into the glove of Las Villas Second Baseman Rigoberto Rodriguez. Marquetti was promptly doubled off first.
In the second inning of a Pinar del Rio-Camag√ºey game the next day, Pinar Second Baseman Felix Iglesias failed to run out a ground ball to second that he had an excellent chance of beating out. In the fourth inning, Camag√ºey Third Baseman Vicente Diaz booted a grounder halfway to center field, and then with no chance whatsoever of catching Pinar base runner Luis Casanova, threw the ball away, allowing Casanova to advance into scoring position. In the sixth inning of that game, the normally reliable Hernandez fielded a hit-and-run single to center and foolishly threw to third, thereby allowing the hitter to jog unchallenged into second.
But just when one starts to lose faith in the Cuban game, a Rodriguez will connect with a picture swing, and a Gourriel will glide to the fence to spear a certain extra-base hit. The physical prowess is undeniable.
"We have the expression 'good hands.' Do you?" Cuevas inquires.
"Yes, but what do you call a player we call a flake?"
"Ah," says Caminada, "a payaso, a clown. But our game does not permit that kind of levity."
"Perhaps, but sometimes such people are good for the game," says Hernandez. "Look at Pedro Cruz, our catcher. He talks to everybody—fans, opponents, umpires, everybody. He is always talking. And sometimes he is so eager he gets to first base to back up a play faster than the base runner does.
"And what of 'hot dogs.' You know, a player who makes the easy plays look difficult, who does what we like to call 'showboating?' "
"Yes," says Caminada, "a postillista. But our public knows so much about the game that such abnormal behavior is disapproved. The fans would shout at him."
"Tito Fuentes, a Cuban, is considered a postillista in our country."
"Yes," says Cuevas sadly, "he was like that when he played here."
The little bus rented by the visiting journalists bounced along the highway between Camag√ºey and Havana. Filaments of smoke from sugar refineries rose in the distance, across the infinity of green grass. There were cattle farms and pig farms and chicken farms, and in the villages children played baseball in the cramped streets, sometimes with sticks for bats and small rubber balls. Every town of any size seemed to have a ball park, some so ancient they looked like crumbling Spanish missions, others bright, new and freshly painted.
Caminada, the magazine writer for INDER's propaganda division, was holding court on the bus. He is a gigantic man, several inches over six feet, many pounds over 300. He shifted his bulk clumsily in the small aisle seat. Jaime (it is pronounced Hymie) is a good laugher, and he laughs often, particularly at his situation as a tour guide and, to his surprise, amigo of the Americans.
The old cars on the highway amuse him as much as they do his charges. "There, there," he shouts, "a Henry J. I bet you do not have cars like that left in your country. I love them. Look, a Nash Rambler. Ahh...."
Reading an American magazine, he spotted a photograph of David Niven in an advertisement. "Davidniven. Englishman. Oh, I like very much your movies. Tyronepower I saw recently in The Black Swan. And Harper, with Paulnewman. We also see the classics—Chaplin, the Marxbrothers. And the plays—Arthur-miller, Tennesseewilliams. Much of the sex is cut out. It is difficult when literature becomes political. Where do you draw the line? But, you know, we are allowed to be criticial of institutions here. I wrote a story about a baseball loss to Panama that people still speak about."
He urged the others to regard his considerable bulk. "We have our troubles here," he said. "I do not deny that. But, look, things cannot be too bad if I am any example." He laughed. "Why don't we stop up the road for a beer."
The evening rain started late that night. Earlier, at sunset, Havana viewed from the balcony of the Habana Libre (née Hilton) Hotel was a crazy quilt of riotous color: the blue sea, green parks, broad gray boulevards, orange tiled roofs, and buildings, very old and very new, painted blue, green and yellow. In the distance, on a hilltop to the south, rose a stark white statue of the martyred Martí. Martí was a poet and intellectual, an essayist and newspaperman, as well as a revolutionary. Old photos of him show him to have been bespectacled and lightly bearded. He had no fierceness in his face. In the pictures, he invariably wears a necktie and a starched colar, and he looks rather a small man. But in his numberless statues, he is as Michaelangelo's David, a marble, naked muscleman.
Havana is no longer the Sodom of the Antilles, where gambling and prostitution flourished. It is a workingman's town now; its only vice is dullness. And so. after dark, the illuminated Martí is the brightest object in Havana. But when the rain came well after midnight, it fell so heavily and violently that even this one beacon was dimmed to a faint glow. The city was visible only when the lightning flashed. Terrible thunder was the only sound that could be heard above the roar of the rain. The city's scents were washed away, too. The storm obliterated Havana. The storm was all that could be seen, heard or smelled.
Cuba, from Martí's rebellion through Castro's, has often been in such storms, and for too long it looked as if the latest one might never clear up. But the clouds are lifting, and the strangers north and south are seeing each other again. They have in common a simple game, one that Cubans can not share with their friends in Eastern Europe. "The Russians have yet to come up with a good lefthanded hitter," says Don Miguel Cuevas, one of whose sons is a student in the U.S.S.R.
After a few minutes, the great storm let up. The sheets of rain dwindled to drops. There was a softening in the night air, an easy silence. And off in the distance, shining brightly again, was José Martí. Kind of a friend by now.
Biggest hero of Cuba 's young street players is Don Miguel Cuevas (right), whose game—and life—improved once Che and his comrades took over.
A radio at his ear, Camag√ºey's Fernandez could be a U.S. player. Only the rhythms are different.
During their 10 p.m. motorcade into the center of Camag√ºey, the national champs were greeted by thousands of fans, who later gulped down 10,000 cases of beer.
When Camag√ºey's champions returned home, the welcoming music was drowned out by cheers.
Cuban baseball comprises a system of local, provincial and super-provincial teams. Here youngsters train under an exhortation to unify and work hard.
Cuban players eat and sleep baseball when they're on the road. Their meals are prepared in stadium kitchens and they bunk in clubhouses.
A meeting of two eras: a pre-revolution finned Cadillac and the modern, post-Castro baseball stadium at Pinar del Rio that seats 15,000.
Centerfielder Hernandez, a .321 hitter, is good enough to play in the major leagues.
Gregarious Catcher Cruz is considered a "payaso" (flake) by local baseball experts.