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Cuban Baseball

Teddy Tannenbaum
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

The pitcher for the local team is throwing a perfect game--no hits, no walks--through three innings. His Pinar del Rio teammates have jumped all over the opposition, Los Agropecuarios, for six runs in the first inning and five more runs in the second inning. Luis Casanova, one of Cuba's greatest sluggers, has already hit one out.

In the stands, the scene is extraordinary. Every fan is making noise. Everyone. Some have brought things to bang on; others improvise as best they can. And here in this town in the heart of some of the greatest cigar-tobacco-growing country in the world, everyone appears to be smoking a puro, or cigar. Bands from Montecristo and Partagas cigars litter the stands.

That's it, however. No ticket stubs lie on the ground because admission is free. There are no ushers or concessions and none of the following: programs, scorecards, public-address announcers, commercial advertisements, promotional giveaway nights, or vendors hawking their goods in the crowd. This is baseball at its most basic level--played outdoors on grass by men who don't get paid a salary and are officially considered amateurs with "other jobs," although for many that job is year-round training.

A foul ball is hit into the stands. It is caught, dropped and caught again. Everyone is clapping and laughing. The fan throws it back on the field, and it is returned to the umpire to be put back into play.

Scarcity is a way of life. The Revolution isn't thirty-five years ago. It is a living, everyday thing for the baseball fanaticos who make the short walk from the downtown center for the afternoon games. Night games ended with the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, which had kept the petrol flowing and electrical generators operating.

A spectator returning a foul ball is just one example; everyone sacrifices for the Revolution. Even in the stadium, fans are reminded of their past and present. Some of the country's ubiquitous slogans--Revolution O Muerte (Revolution or Death)--are inscribed on the outfield fence.

Omar Linares, known as "El Niño," comes up to bat for Pinar del Rio. The third baseman with world-class hitting power has been walked twice so far--out of respect. His stance is wide, his hands back, the bat head cocked forward. The outfield is deep and straight away. Linares gets ahold of one and sends it out. High and deep down the left-field line. A home run out of any park, even though the modern, single-deck Pinar del Rio stadium is small by U.S. Major League standards: 360 feet in the power alleys and 390 feet to straightaway center. The left fielder takes one step back and then turns and stops. Pinar del Rio's lead is one run wider.

For the inhabitants of Pinar Del Rio as well as the rest of Cuba's 10 million-plus population, the Revolution includes something uniquely American: the game of baseball. While Havana cigars, especially those rolled with tobacco from the nearby Vuelta Abajo, have made their mark throughout the world and cultivated their own folklore, at home the Cuban people have embraced la pelota (the Cuban term for baseball) every bit as much as cigars. Baseball is more than the national sport, it is the national obsession. And with good reason. Cuba was the first country outside the United States to play the American game and they have been doing it successfully for more than 100 years.

The game between Pinar del Rio and Los Agropecuarios is part of a playoff series to determine who will advance in the Serie Nacional. Later in the year will come the Serie Selectiva, an elimination tournament that will pit the best players against each other in a six-team national World Series. And from that will come players who tour with the Cuban national team.

This demanding and challenging process has been eminently successful over the past 30 years. Prior to Cuba's victory in the 1992 Olympic competition, the national team had won seven of the previous eight world championships (Cuba did not compete in 1982). In its last seven international tournaments, Cuba's record is 72-1, the only loss to the United States in the 1987 Pan Am Games. They have been Pan American Games champions since 1963, won the Intercontinental Cup in seven of eight tournaments since 1979, and five of eight World Youth Championships (ages 16 to 18) since 1984.

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