Stairway to Havana – Softball Diplomacy and Yankee Perspective (Part 1)

Arriving In the Capital

The late night flight from Cancun to Havana was aboard an Aero Mexico Dutch-built Fokker-100 passenger jet that most likely had been in service since the late 1980’s. It was roomy and quiet plus it had a feature new to this air traveler. About 45 minutes into the 1 hour flight, a bi-lingual announcement prepared the passengers for approach and then something was said about “fumigation” that I didn’t catch. I asked a fellow passenger what that meant and before he could answer, I saw other passengers attempt to cover their noses and mouths with their shirt collars, scarves and hands as a heavy chemical mist sprayed down on us from the overhead compartments. It seems the Cuban government has insisted that any cargo coming from Mexico has to be sprayed with disinfectant before being allowed to land. Apparently, the passengers are considered cargo as well.

None of us knew what to expect when our group of 24 Americans arrived bug-eyed and germ-free at Havana’s Jose Marti Airport around 11pm local time. The 20 minute bus ride to the hotel didn’t reveal much in the way of sights or scenery; the city was dimly lit with only a scattering of functional sodium streetlights. What could be clearly seen through the bus windows however were the billboards and murals – all brightly painted slogans proclaiming the blessings of Unity, Party, Socialism and Revolution. Was it by design that even in the late hours, when all was dark and boarded, that the message of “La Revolucion” could still be seen so clearly on the shadowy streets?

The hotel where we stayed was billed as four-star and the exterior and lobby did seem clean and modern but the trip up to the room revealed worn and stained carpets, patched, unpainted walls and the unmistakable smell of mold. Consistent water pressure in the building was hit-or-miss and the bed was hard as a picnic table but other than that, the accommodations were comfortable. After an 18 hour travel day, I spent my first night in Havana in peaceful slumber.

The next morning, looking out from the 3rdfloor window, I was startled to see how close to near-ruin Old Havana appeared. In every direction I saw buildings blackened by decades of mold, in various states of decay or near-collapse and yet still inhabited. Laundry was hanging to dry on makeshift clotheslines from balconies of buildings that would otherwise appear to be abandoned or condemned. It took me a minute to understand what I was seeing: this was a nation’s capital in which no non-governmental city structure pre-dating 1959 had been repaired, washed or even marginally maintained for half a century. I realized I was a long way from Starbucks. This was Cuba. The genuine third world, last-vestige-of-the-cold-war Communist dictatorship I learned about in school, which was governed – until recently – by that most famous (and longest tenured) bearded revolutionary Marxist in the world, old Fidel himself. I suspected as I stared out at the spectacular yet dilapidated architecture, that in my wonder and excitement in the weeks preceding this trip, I may have over-romanticized this adventure. And not knowing exactly what I was getting into here gave my stomach an unwelcome churn. As I looked down to the narrow side-street where a morning line of shoppers was forming in front of a small, dingy market, I wondered if I would be back at the airport the next day, hauling my privileged gringo ass back to California, sorry that I had traveled all the way down to this depressing place. But fortunately, this bleak first impression would turn out to be only misplaced apprehension on my part and would soon dissolve. I would quickly find a comfort zone in these foreign surroundings and in place of my misgivings, there would form instead a surprising perspective and an indelible impression of a country and a people.

Softball Diplomacy

I was entering Cuba as a member of the USA/Cuba Senior Softball team comprised of 13 “Senior” players ranging from the youngest (58 years of age) to the oldest (76). We were scheduled to play a series of 4 games against senior Cuban counterparts. At the time of our visit, there was not a Senior Softball League in Cuba so we didn’t know exactly who or how many different teams we would play or under what playing conditions. We would just find out when we got there. The tour was organized as a kind of goodwill, hands-across-the-gulf adventure formed by the late Bob Weinstein, then President of USA-Cuba, LLC and founder of USA – Cuba Sports Experiences. Bob had brought other U.S. softball teams to Cuba before his untimely death last year at age 66, but this was the first “senior” team to form solely for the purpose of traveling to Cuba to play softball. We weren’t an All-Star team by any means, but simply a collection of softball hobbyists with the time, inclination and finances to make the trip. One or two practices were held by the team before we left, but we understood that we comprised more of an ambassadorial junket than a competitive softball team. Our group managed to pack an extra 250 lbs of clothes, medicines and personal items that we planned to distribute while we were there making this trip a combination hurricane relief/sports adventure.

For our first game, we disembarked from our bus at the “Sports Practice Field” next to Juan Ealo Stadium in outer Havana and walked across a vacant lot to the softball field. Most activity at the park came to a halt and the locals stared at the Americans as we quietly crossed the two hundred yards to the Visitors dugout wearing our USA-Cuba hats and jerseys and carrying our equipment bags. The Cuban team was warming up when we arrived and was looking over at us warily. We put big eager smiles on our faces and quickly introduced ourselves, posed for pictures together and expressed our gratitude and pleasure to be a part of this event. When they saw that we were more intent on friendship and camaraderie than fierce competition, the collective nervousness and reticence we detected changed quickly to friendliness and enthusiasm. A ceremony of sorts was held before the first game and a Cuban Softball Federation official spoke describing this occasion as an important step in the continuing goodwill between sporting countries. We were given Cuban Olympic pins in exchange for the commemorative pins we gave to them. We felt a genuine fellowship between us and the Cubans and we could tell by the smiles and expressions we saw on their faces that they felt it too.

We learned that the Cuban squad we would be playing had been hastily assembled since senior softball was still unheard of in Cuba. In fact, the idea of a league comprised of players far past their prime was…well, foreign to them. From their appearance, they seemed like a rag-tag group of elderly Cuban gentleman, some wearing uniforms they must have kept since the ’60’s & ’70’s, judging by their faded, worn conditions. Not all of them had baseball gloves or bats, so we shared with them what we had and made these exchanges of equipment between innings.

When the Cubans took the field, any notions that they could be taken lightly as competitors quickly vanished. They executed on the field in crisp, fundamental fashion, making few errors defensively and obviously taking pride in their performance. An errant throw or a missed cutoff would draw the ire of fellow players. We later learned that most of the team members played organized baseball in Cuba at some point in their youth and a few of them even made it to the Cuban National Team. Baseball is the national sport in Cuba, far out-ranking soccer in participation and interest. The Game itself is a favorite subject for spirited debate in city parks and the baseball season is followed with nationalistic fervor, so this dedication to the sport was reflected in the Cubans’ play. We had four games scheduled but only played three because Hurricane Paloma crossed the center of the island during our visit bringing rain and winds to Cuba’s western end, causing one of our contests to be canceled. We were bested in all three games, but the scores were respectable by slow-pitch standards and seemed unimportant, given the unprecedented circumstances. After the last game, our organizers arranged for a few cases of beer to be delivered to our dugout – an act that’s strictly forbidden under normal circumstances but on this occasion, the ordinance was apparently waived – and we all lingered and laughed, popped a few cold ones, posed for more pictures and exchanged uniform shirts, sweatbands, gloves, hats and other memorabilia. Two of the players I met had brought programs from international competitions they had played in when they were young. It was all they had to share with us and it was very touching to be given something that was so clearly very dear to them. I asked the Cuban players to autograph the inside covers of those programs and they were all very happy to oblige. In this amazing atmosphere of fraternity and respect, one had the sense of what ‘normal’ relations between American and Cuban citizens might be, if the political chasm between us were to somehow disappear.

Following our series on the field, the Cuban Softball Federation met with officials from the U.S. Senior Softball Association who had joined us on the trip and together they discussed the possibilities of forming a Senior League in Cuba. We were happy to think our trip and experience could be the springboard needed in the formation of a league for these wonderful Cuban players. As it turns out, the Cuban Federation later announced the first Annual US-Cuban Senior Softball Classic will be played in Havana the next year, featuring the four new Cuban Senior Softball teams that have been formed. So it appears that the League-Of-Their-Own idea has become a reality for some senior Cubanos as they take the field again to play softball, or they say in Cuba, “Las Grandes Pelotas.”

Nicole Thomas

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