California State University East Bay

The Pioneer

Daniel Larios

Photo by Daniel Larios/Contributor

Photo by Daniel Larios/Contributor

Daniel Larios,
Contributor

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First impression

When you finally get to see that movie that’s been blowing up the box office or somehow manage to get a table at the hottest restaurant in the city, often times the hype gets built up so much that when you finally get to experience it, some of its panache is worn off and you’re left with a lackluster experience. Cuba doesn’t have that problem.

Having visited various Latin American and Caribbean countries such as Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, I have familiarized myself with many of the nuances and social ways of the different cultures. Cuba, while closest to the US geographically, may as well be in a world of its own. Like many other countries in Hispaniola, the language, food, music, and overall demeanor are very representative of the culture. What separates this land from the others is the people’s cooperative mentality and their collective sense of nationalism.  

Stop and admire any building in Old Havana or take a picture of one of the many statues along the Malecon (similar to PCH) and within seconds of your observation, more often than not a local citizen will interject and cordially start filling you in on the history of the given monument. It’s as if everyone on the island is not only well informed of Cuba’s colorful history, but they feel obligated to pass on its story as if it’s their own.

I came here with a group of over 20 students but in the hopes of not coming off as a tourist with a camera, I have discreetly ventured off on my own to try and gain a more realistic view of what the country has to offer. Cuba, like many other areas colonized in the late 1400’s and 1500’s, has a diverse population. On one end of the spectrum, many of its (Cuba’s) citizens bare a skin tone of African descent, and still, there are many others who resemble an almost Anglo-European traditional Spaniard look. Being a Mexican American with a fair skin tone, I have been able to blend in as the latter.

The freeze frame of the 1950s as it pertains to the cars, roads and infrastructure is what anyone who visits will first notice. However, when you truly absorb the essence of Cuba, you’ll find stark comparisons from that of other more technologically advanced nations in that, when you speak with any random citizen or non-scholar (in America per se) , you’ll be pressed to find information about the nation’s history or its previous presidents and their administrations. Granted Cuba is younger and has had fewer leaders but people here genuinely take pride in knowing who they are, where they came from and how they got here. Not many others can say that.

 

Impresiones de beisbol

Out of the 24 students that came on the Cuba trip, three of us are focusing our projects on some aspect of baseball. Luckily Mitch (a member of the three) met someone stateside who was well connected with a local sports journalist named Andy, and they made arrangements for him to take us around various spots of Havana. The goal was for us to speak with the locals and hear their thoughts about Cuban American relations as it pertains to baseball player development and the politics of their best players defecting to play in the US or other countries abroad.

Andy met us at the hotel and we set off for Havana’s Central Park. It’s been known as a hangout for locals and tourists alike where you can engage in conversation or just enjoy the ambiance. Immediately upon arrival, we noticed a group of about nine men who were in an intense argument. From my broken Spanish, I picked up a few key words and occasionally heard the names Guerrero and Despaigne. I could tell they were debating which player was better but I needed Andy to fully break down the conversation. Without interfering I inched closer to the group and pointed to my camera while they were engaged, they nodded in approval so I began recording. As I was standing there, Andy was relaying to me what they were saying.

Both Guerrero and Despaigne defected three years ago during the last World Baseball Classic. Guerrero caught the attention of the Los Angeles Dodgers while Despaigne ended up playing in Europe. Currently both players have been picked up by the Japanese league but are now on different teams. Cuban news outlets don’t show American baseball games and rarely do they report the whereabouts of Cuban players who are playing abroad.

The gist of the discussion was that even though Despaigne’s stats were slightly lower than the Guerrero’s, he was still better because he played in the harder division. The opposition was saying that their player is actually much better because, since he is such an offensive threat, many times the other team pitches around him. Therefore, the walks he receives in lieu of possible hits hinder his run production. Then the conversation became very obscure because other variables started coming into play like weather and fatigue, so 45 minutes later they ultimately agreed it was impossible to fairly compare the two.

Similar conversations take place in the U.S. every day. Whether it be on talk radio or a TV station, you’ll find the hosts discussing the latest topics with as much passion as a sales person trying to hit their last quota. But seldom do the stories they report, transcend time, and can be felt with the same passion as when you hear a Cuban speaking about the same subject.

You could argue that they’re just passionate about their players and can speak well on the subjects because there is only a handful of Cuban’s playing abroad and that any American baseball fan can speak eloquently about a handful of players they follow too. The difference down here, however, is that not only do Cubans know about their players, they know their history, the province they grew up in, when they left Cuba and how they left Cuba. What is most impressive about the Cuban people is that they are able to follow their favorite players all over the US, Mexico, Europe and Asia without watching it on TV. The majority of information they get is through, national TV and Radio, print and pirate radio.

 

Bucket List

We got word there was a recreational baseball field where locals go to play pickup games a couple of kilometers away from our hotel. In the hopes of recording a casual interview, we decided to pack a few things and head out that way. We figured the worst-case scenario is we’d get some b-roll or pictures of some of Cuba’s fields. We didn’t expect what happened next.

Upon arrival, we approached a man who was practicing his wind up and pitching form. In Cuba, the older folks play a hybrid version of slow and fast pitch softball. It’s basically pitched underhand but they’ve developed a way to speed up the throw without wind-milling it like women do in college and the Olympics. As we came closer, he gestured as if he knew us and then immediately engaged us. Luckily, he spoke enough English to make up for my bad Spanish.  We explained what we were doing and he while he didn’t mind answering our questions, he did inform us that we may want to get permission from the school director to record on the grounds. Apparently, this baseball field was tied to an adjacent primary school.

We walked toward the entrance of the school where we were understandably greeted with what one could argue, a slight sense of hostility. There we were, four over eager American men with backpacks filled with video and audio equipment encroaching upon their land, not to mention a school for children. Once again, we tried explaining to the head mistress what we were doing there and what we were attempting to do, but we were immediately shut down, with no room for negotiation. From what we gathered, she said the school was dedicated to Jose Marti and any media involving the school would have to first get approved through some sort of international press committee. Not having much of a choice, we obliged, but then we did ask for permission to at least watch the game from the stands. Reluctantly, she agreed.

Although we were tempted to sneak a camera out of a bag and get some footage of the players, we didn’t want an international incident stemming from our actions, so we behaved. But then something interesting happened, just as they were wrapping up their warm-ups and stretches, the boys approached us in the stands and asked us if we wanted to play. We weren’t really dressed for the occasion and didn’t have any equipment but, one, I was not going to let this opportunity pass me by, and two, these guys were so accommodating, they lent us their gloves and bats as if we’d known them for years.

Now I play in an adult men’s recreational league anyway so I knew I could hold my own with these guys. Even though there were a couple of young studs out there, most of them were in their 30s or 40s and their strengths were now more about their technical acumen as opposed to brute strength.  

Game time.

What happened next was everything I expected this trip to be. I grabbed a glove and pointed to second base as to ask if I could take the position. It’s funny, Cuban’s love their shortstops and all these guys wanted to play there so clearly, 2nd base was open and mine.

First play of the game, line drive straight to me, one out. 2nd play of the game, pop up behind me, I run it down, two outs. Phew. Cobwebs officially removed. As the game progressed, I was consistent and even got a couple of hits. As for my counterparts, they didn’t fare as well. In Cam’s defense, he’s more a football player than baseball player, but overall, he did ok. Mitch, on the other hand – I have no idea what happened – but he missed the ball every single time when he was batting. Luckily though he had a redeeming moment when he made an out in right field.

The game concluded when a thunder storm that rolled in with a vengeance, but for those few games, even though we may not have been able to say much to each other verbally, the language of baseball transcended all and we played together with nothing on our mind other than the game.

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Daniel Larios