1st of a 5-part series
For baseball geeks the Negro Leagues offer an interesting study. Their cultural significance to American history is well documented, while becoming an institution within the Negro community. It is interesting to note that in 1885 the first Negro League team was named the Cuban Giants. They were made up of three amateur teams from Philadelphia and the District of Columbia. As more teams were organized it was the Jim Crow conditions in the United States that led teams to seek out favorable environments such as Cuba, Mexico and other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America.
During my presentations on baseball I often emphasize the game is much more than nine players on each team recording twenty-seven outs or until a victor is declared. Since the game was created it has morphed into a social phenomenon that unfortunately many misdiagnose as being boring, too difficult to understand or simply too long to record a complete game. Some of those attributes may be true but there is something to be said as more countries have embraced its international popularity. No doubt, in the United States Major League Baseball (MLB) is dealing with a correction or a decline in game-day attendance. Even though critics shun the game or offer reasons for unpopularity, it should not be mistaken to infer the end is near!
The Negro Leagues were tremendously successful. Major League Baseball was also successful but realized following World War II their future was in jeopardy. The greatness of Jackie Robinson is well documented as the first Negro League player to cross over to Major League Baseball. What gets lost in this historic moment is Robinson’s transition to MLB was indeed a gamble. But, MLB realized the gamble was more of an opportunity to energize the game that some thought was not exciting enough to draw the type of attendance needed for success. They pointed to record crowds at Negro League games as well as a more exciting style of play, versus the benevolent tone of Branch Rickey and the desire to integrate the sport as a primary motivation.
Branding = Success
Interesting through the years baseball came to be known as the national sport of Cuba. Their teams were fearless as they built a reputation as powerful competitors. Politics aside, their success helped create mystique about the country they represented.
Fulfilling a bucket list goal from several years ago I established an action-plan for a more robust evaluation of the Negro Leagues:Cuban baseball, and the impact. Thus, this series was born with the mandate to provide better documentation on the topic and to offer a perspective of the Intersectionality.
In the game of baseball 1947 was a critical year. Jackie Robinson made history as being the first “Negro” (African-American) to play in Major League Baseball. Interestingly, it also marked the year that Cuba and Major League Baseball reached an agreement for African-Americans and other players to train in their country.
Baseball in Cuba today
Cuba still holds swag when discussing top teams in the game. Currently they are ranked number five in the World Baseball Federation. Japan is number one and the United States is number two. However, even though the rankings are fair, what gets lost in the equation is even though Cuba is the Caribbean’s largest populated country at 11 million, except Taipei, the top three countries have populations of 127 million, 325 million and 510 million respectively. So, from my perspective Cuba does an exceptional job in claiming the number five spot based on population size. Thus, it is no secret the higher your population the larger your pool of potential talent and from a quick analysis one can conclude Cuba gets a lot of “bang for its buck” regarding leveraging its population.
No doubt players from Cuba are defecting so the agreement is great news. I mean for that kind of money – EXPLOIT ME!!! I would be willing to take a chance for that kind of opportunity because playing for the national team does not even compare!! YR
The game is the game! The goal for most amateur players is to earn their way to MLB. However, style of play of the Negro Leagues and Cuban team have similar attributes. The same is true with respect to fan behavior. There is much more visible passion and fan interaction during the game
While I am proud to be a lifelong Los Angeles Dodgers fan, I also take pride as a student of the game and its social dynamic. Baseball is a great game; as long as you understand it. As mentioned earlier, it can be an excruciating experience for those who lack some of the basic knowledge. The game has many rules, most noteworthy of “how the game is to be played.”
The notion of “how the game is to be played” is a conflict for many players who have finally ascended to MLB status. In time, most overcome the conflict but for some it’s like trying to walk a tightrope with no pole to hold onto. The Latin game, the Mexican game and especially the Cuban game is full of non-stop action. That is especially true for fans. Player oftentimes stretch their limitations and whether in success or failure, they showcase visible jubilation or frustration. The MLB game is more tempered and their mantra is players must “respect the game at all times and visible emotions are frowned upon.” I mean, thank God Yasiel Puig has found a new home with the Cincinnati Reds but during his seven-year stint with the Dodgers he was criticized by more than those who you might think should know better, that he was disrespecting the game with his “antics!!” In my opinion they are so wrong to marginalize him and other Latin/Caribbean players. As much as players make efforts to successfully transition, the facts are simple the game is played differently which results in more vested passion from the fans. I am reminded of how Major League baseball would have reacted when the great Satchel Paige during a Negro League game ordered the seven defenders behind him and the catcher to take a knee leaving what many figured was a team without a defense. Satchel known for his antics promptly struck out the side of the opposing team, as the defense was not needed.
Three games in 2018
Part of my trek to Cuba in December 2018 was to meet with baseball officials and ordinary fans of the game. Luckily my visit coincided with the 58 Cuban National Series, where six teams were set to battle for the ultimate prize. After some juggling of my itinerary I penciled in two tournament games and one amateur softball game that I would be able to attend.
What a blunder!
I thought I did my homework so I felt I was well prepared to attend the game at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana featuring Sancti Spiritus versus Industriales. I knew ticket prices had gone up from three CUCS to five CUCS. The famed stadium holds about the same as Chavez Ravine home of the Los Angeles Dodgers. However, unlike Chavez Ravine which holds tens of thousands of cars in its parking lot, Latinoamericano is much different as there are more spaces for motorcycles than cars. Duh!!! What do you expect when less than 1% of Cubans own cars. Thus, the mode of transportation for the majority who attend games is by walking, hitching a ride, the bus, bicycle or for those with resources; a motor bike including a few who actually drove to the game. What was quite a site being what might be considered a “parking lot” had been transformed to an internet hot spot. The stadium has the feel of any stadium in the U.S. that is tucked into a community. It is located in the Cerro community of Havana and the pride and joy of the home team.
So back to getting my ticket. Unlike many stadiums where there are ticket booths with turnstiles and other entry points, Latinoamericano is a bit different. Adjacent the exterior of the pavilion section you notice a line that has formed. There is a large see-through fence as there is a lady (staff) and another person who is behind the fence operating from a table and cash box. Tickets are assembled in packs and as soon as one is sold it is ripped from the paper using a ruler and presto, that is your ticket for entry.
Luckily my embarrassment was short-lived. All I was focused on was paying my five CUCs ($5). It never dawned on me the majority of fans would be locals, thus using local currency (pesos or a value of 24:1 in dollars or CUCs). As the line moved forward it was finally my turn to purchase my ticket. I spoke in my gringo Spanish that I would like one ticket and was handing the clerk a $20 CUC. She looked at me in bewilderment as her eyes suggested WTF!!!!! What am I supposed to do with that!!!! At first, I thought she simply didn’t have change but then I quickly realized I had given her 2400 pesos when all she needed was one! I could feel the noise from those behind me trying to figure out why in the heck was it taking me so long just to get one ticket? Luckily a quick-thinking fan realized my dilemma and abruptly jumped in and told the clerk he would buy my ticket. She ripped the tickets from the paper and he give me mine and sheepishly I gathered myself and headed to the ticket taker at the gate. A lesson learned.
Once inside I finally found the person I was meeting. Anyway, I am so glad I brought bags of double-bubble chewing gun and sunflower seeds. I tossed them around to fans like I was riding a float during Mardi-Gras.
A huge difference
As mentioned earlier, MLB is suffering a decline in attendance. Even though the Dodgers consistently fill up their stadium that is not the case for the majority of the thirty-teams. As a matter of fact, the Miami Marlins which is in Little Havana of Miami is grateful to get 20-25k fans per game, and their stadium is relatively new!
As I scoured the crowd at Latinoamericano I was pleasantly surprised to witness what looked like about 30k fans in attendance. What was more impressive was the demographics. Incredibly the majority appeared in the 20-40 age range but there were also, many youth and a nice cross-section of fans who came to root for their respective team and grab some entertainment. I thought to myself MLB would pay a fortune to get such a mixture?
Attending a game in Havana is much different from Dodger stadium or other MLB venues. First, while the stadium designs are similar, the majority of what you sit on are concrete slabs. Near the field of play and tucked in between dugouts are the more traditional seats. As a matter of fact, the higher you go up in the stadium concrete slabs are replaced with metal slats or something you can sit on.
Vendors are a plenty as they roam the aisles selling all types of Cuban snacks. But, perhaps what was a big seller was the colorful vuvuzelas, which the fans demanded so they could join in the chorus of noise that was nonstop from inning to inning. The vuvuzelas were merely a complement because tucked near the home team dugout was the twelve-piece plus band blaring drums, horns and other musical instruments. Along with what the fans had, the “rhythm section” provided the juice so the cheerleader and mascot could provide an evening of entertainment while watching a good baseball game.
I think I arrived around the 3rd inning. Either way, the visiting team; Sancti Spiritus had jumped to a six nothing lead. Perhaps from the motivation of the cheering section, the Industriales woke up and inning by inning fought their way back to tie the game and eventually take a 7-6 lead.
I found out about the conclusion of the game the next day as I was on the Viazul bus traveling from Havana to my next city, Cienfuegos. Luckily the young lady sitting next to me also attended the game with her twin sister and boyfriend. They stayed until the end of the game and told me of the exciting come from behind victory. She also mentioned they were on their way to Cienfuegos to spend time with their father during the holidays. More interesting was she mentioned her love for the game was instilled by her dad so she couldn’t wait to see him, as like me that was her first game in person while being in Cuba and she couldn’t wait to share her experience.
The visit to Cienfuegos was important as in addition to visiting the stadium where Yasiel Puig played before defecting to Mexico, I had arranged to meet with a person who claimed to know the family very well. I was surprised to find a cadeca in what appeared to be in a residential area of Cienfuegos. Lo and behold my contact was there waiting for me and we chatted for nearly an hour. He was very happy of the success Puig has generated since being a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
After spending the night in Cienfuegos I was set to travel to Trinidad. Things got a little nervous as the Viazul officer came to the lobby area to announce the bus was running two hours late. Whoa, this presented a slight wrinkle as my plan of getting into Trinidad before sundown appeared to be in jeopardy.
Who said modified fastpitch softball is dead?
After arriving in Trinidad I realized my casa particulares was just a couple of blocks from Estadio Rolando Rodriguez. So, the next morning to my delight a men’s softball game was just starting. Softball is another dynamic of baseball. It may look easy, but at a competitive level skill is required to succeed. The game being played was actually modified fast pitch (the pitcher does not wind up) but offers the ball to the batter at a fast speed, and oftentimes at change of pace, as the batter’s challenge is to adjust the swing to squarely connect with the ball.
Santiago de Cuba
Along the way to Santiago de Cuba I was able to see estadio’s in Ciego de Avila, Las Tunas and Sancti Spiritus. As mentioned only six teams were competing in the playoffs. I had arranged to meet with two baseball locals at the old Bacardi Rum Factory. Like most Cubans I talk to about baseball, they too were knowledgeable and passionate. I also was able to make it over to Estadio Guillermon Mocada where the Santiago de Cuba team was practicing. The stadium was very impressive.
One other important interview in Santiago de Cuba included Jose Carmen. He and his son would be considered die-hard fans, so even though his team was not playing, he invited me to watch a couple of innings of games which were being televised. Again, very knowledgeable of the finer points of the game.
As I made it back to Havana, the third game slated was back at Estadio Latinoamericano. Holguin would be squaring off against the Industriales. After my first blunder of not understanding the cost of MY ticket, I came prepared so I purchased 4 tickets with my $10 pesos and gladly handed out the 3 extra tickets to delighted strangers who had been in line to grab their ticket.
The amazing thing about attending a game in Cuba or specifically at Estado Latinoamericano is the large crowds and the passion on display. Luckily, they won the game as from my conversation from the young lady I met on the bus ride to Cienfuegos, I would be treated to something I had never seen!!! As the game ended the players came out of the dugout to congratulate those on the field, it was cleared and the Lion mascot delighted those like me who stuck around. He pretended to swing at a pitch and circled the bases and ended in a head first victory slide finishing up near the visitors’ dugout.
On a sad note, before entering the stadium I grabbed some water at a store which was directly across the street. To my surprise, I ran into Sergio Luis Pulido Pozo who prides himself as a knowledgeable fan. He was drawn to chat as I was wearing my Los Angeles Dodgers cap, so he enthusiastically remarked how proud he was of Yasiel Puig and other Cuban players who were making a positive impact. He also mentioned his support of the agreement announced several days earlier between MLB and the Cuba Baseball Federation, where Cuban nationals would not have to forego their affiliation with their country.
As the game ended, I headed to a hotspot as I needed to update my wife of my schedule. It was then, she announced the Dodgers had traded Yasiel Puig and others to the Cincinnati Reds. She was devastated so I wrapped up and headed back to the store to get Sergio’s reaction. Unfortunately, it was near 11 o’clock and he had already wrapped up his shift.
With the new MLB agreement with Cuba, will their organization go the same way as the Negro Leagues?
To be continued…………………………………..