Cuban baseball hits one out of the park
Cheap seats, outdoor ballparks, friendly players make pelota a must see

You get real a sense of history in the streets of Old Havana. The borough, which Unesco declared a world heritage site, has an eclectic mix of colonial architecture, neo-classical and baroque monuments, built during the Spanish occupation. There's another constant reminder that Cuba is an anachronism: the stream of baseballs whizzing by pedestrians' heads, especially if you go off the beaten path.

North American kids have long abandoned sandlot and street baseball in favor of the organized version. But hoards of Cubans play pelota (ball) everywhere, with makeshift bats made of old broomsticks, table-legs and anything else that delivers a good punch.

The Caribbean's largest island is baseball crazy. While most Latin American nations mimic the European love of soccer, Cuba prefers the game that Americans brought across the Straights of Florida during the-mid 1800s. That love remains steadfast, despite both the U.S. blockade, which makes it hard for Cubans to get access to equipment and government censorship which blocks news of their favorite Major League Baseball teams.

Like the 1950s Cadillacs and Buicks that roam Havana streets, Cuban baseball is a throwback to an earlier, more innocent time, when people played for the love of the game, not for career and money.

The first thing you'll notice when you walk into Havana's 55,000 seat Estadio Latinoamericano is the silence. At its best, baseball is a quiet, meditative experience, which seduces its fans with a slowly developing story, mixed with strategy and sudden bursts of superb feats of athleticism.

Cuban pelota, is a breath of fresh air to purists, weary of the steady deterioration of U.S. professional baseball, ruined by rock-and roll music throughout the game, sky-high ticket prices, prima-donna stars, never-ending strikes and contract talks.

It's almost as if Cuba's national sport has been kept in a time warp. The games cost next to nothing, about 25 cents in Canadian money. That means you can bring the whole family, including your kids, which are an increasing rarity in North American parks. The seating, even at Estadio Latinoamericano is general admission. That means if you arrive early, you can sit right behind home plate.

And the quality is exceptional. Although Cuban players can't get off the island, Cuba produces some of the baseball's biggest stars. The Montreal Expos have two former Cubans on their roster, Orlando and Livan Hernandez, both World Series Champions. Blue Jays manager Carlos Tosca hails from Cuba as well, as does Yankee pitcher Jose Contreras and about a dozen other major leaguers. And if they could get across, another 50 or 60 Cubans would likely find spots in professional baseball.

Not surprisingly Cuba's national team does well in international competition. The team's trophy case includes 19 world championships, numerous Olympic gold medals and earlier this year, the club added its ninth straight Pan American games gold medal.

Despite their talent and fame, Cuban ballplayers act like ordinary guys, and fans relate to them. Although many are provided with cars and good apartments by the state, salaries are the same as ordinary Cuban workers.

The fact that the Cuban players aren't such spoiled prima donnas makes them a lot more fun to watch. The best Canadian comparison, would be the Allouettes, Montreal's CFL club, which has generated huge fan loyalty since then-president Larry Smith moved the team, composed mostly of meat-and-potatoes athletes, from the city's Olympic Stadium to an outdoor facility at McGill University.

Cuba's 16-team national league teams play a regular season schedule that runs from November to March. This is followed by several weeks of playoffs. The best players are then drafted onto the national team, which plays against other Latin American countries and in tournaments.

The teams are based in cities across the country, and there is one within reasonable travelling distance of the beaches of Varadero, Cayo Coco, Guardalavaca and most other tourist resorts. Like pro-teams, the Cuban teams travel for three-game swings, though they often play one of those games in a small city outside of their home stadiums. That gives ordinary Cubans a chance to see their favorite teams play.

Watching a baseball game on Cuban television is also a lot of fun and a good way to learn a bit of Spanish. Many hotels don't offer Cuban television so you'll have to make a Cuban friend to do this. But Cubans are very friendly, and most baseball fans would be glad to have you over, if you offer to bring a bottle of rum and some sandwiches.

Another great experience is attending "baseball talk" sessions, which are held almost every weekday morning at Havana's Parque Centrale. There, fans from all walks of life gather to talk pelota.

Discussions are lively and heated. As with talk radio, the loud smart-allecks draw the most attention. As the old saying goes, the less people know about a subject, the better the argument. That means foreigners are always welcome. That's doubly true if they bring news or statistics from North American clubs and players.


Getting There:

o The Cuban League's regular season runs from November to March. This is followed by several weeks of playoffs. Then a national team is assembled which competes against Latin American countries.
o You can attend a regular season game in any one of 16 cities across Cuba. By far the most convenient is Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano, home to the Industriales, the national champions. As in pro-ball, teams travel for three-game series, but they frequently play one of the games in a small town, adjacent to the home stadium. This gives rural players some access to the sport.
o Reliable sources of scheduling and baseball are rare in Cuba. Yet ironically most Cuban seems to know which team is playing where and when. The best policy is to ask at your hotel.
o Cuba's road signs and maps are hopelessly unreliable and outdated. Many street names have been given post-revolutionary names, but the government hasn't gotten around to taking down the old signs so it's very confusing. Unless you have lots of time, you're better off taking a cab than driving.



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