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Tuesday, April 17, 2001

Window on Cuba: A Pilgrimage to the Vatican of Baseball

A glimpse into the past, present, and future of baseball in Cuba.

"Baseball is like church.

Many attend but few understand"


— Wes Westrum

 

WIDTH="360" HEIGHT="285" ALIGN="LEFT" BORDER="0" NATURALSIZEFLAG="3" vspace="3" hspace="3">

 

To the explorer, nothing is more exciting than discovering
a pocket of "the past" uncorrupted by the changes (good
and bad) that result from the demolition-derby bumper-car ride
that is the Global Economy. For a Christian, it might be seeing
some of the sub-Saharan Christian communities that perpetuate
the beliefs and practices their elders had 1900 years ago. To
a linguist, it might be talking to the pocket of people in the
western North Carolina mountains who still speak Elizabethan English.
To a devout baseball fan, it’s a trip to the pure well of
a kind of baseball the rest of the world has strayed from—the
veritable Vatican of baseball: Cuba.

 

A baseball trip to Cuba brings into a clear focus what’s
great about the game itself, what’s great about the way we
do it in North America, and what baseball has lost by succumbing
to the distorting pressure of market mechanisms.

 

I went in February on Cubaball, an intense, one-week, five-game,
jam-packed baseball tour. It covered a lot of ground, from history
presentations, visits to gravesites and old parks, a session with
Connie Marrero (the oldest living major leaguer in Cuba), a visit
to the town where Cuba’s greatest historic baseball giant
(Martín Dihigo) spent his last years, and an all-too-brief
tour of one of the baseball academies that crank out smart baseball
players at the same rate Ford turns out Escorts. And, of course,
five League games. It was a great tour, dense with events both
important and whimsical, deftly delivered, even in a country where
scheduling official organizations’ time can be a challenge.

 

Perhaps the most remarkable and telling event was our visit
to Martín Dihigo’s tomb. To understand Dihigo
(pronounced "DEE-go") is to understand what makes Cuban
baseball so special, but it’s also very revealing about the
current situation in that embargoed island.



MARTÍN DIHIGO’S CAREER

 

If you already know about his Hall of Fame career, skip over this section;
  if not, I’ll draw on some sources and dis SRC="http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/images/cuba/dihigo02.jpg" WIDTH="240" HEIGHT="287"
ALIGN="LEFT" BORDER="0" NATURALSIZEFLAG="3" vspace="3" hspace="3">till it. Let’s
  start at the end: his 1923-1945 playing career in the U.S. Negro Leagues, Cuban
  League, Mexican League and Venezuelan League earned him berths in Cooperstown
  (in 1977, for his Negro League career), and in the national baseball Halls of
  Fame in Mexico & Cuba, too, for his play in each of those countries.

 

Three separate Hall of Fame careers—that’s just the
beginning of the versatility of "El Inmortal."

 

He started his career as a teenage no-hit/great-glove middle-infielder
with the Negro League’s Cuban Stars, but quickly learned
to hit: by age 21, he was an all-star five-point outfielder and
home run champion.  A few years later, he evolved into a legendary
third baseman and pitcher, retiring from the Negro leagues in
1936 as that circuit’s batting average champ.

 

He moved to the Mexican league as his summer venue (the Cuban
league plays winter ball)  and had no trouble adjusting; he threw
that circuit’s first-ever no-hitter, posted an 0.97 ERA and
batted an unpitcherly .357 in his debut season. In his second
Mexican campaign, he went 18-2 with a league-leading 0.90 ERA,
while leading the league in batting average (.387). When Johnny
Mize batted behind Dihigo in the Dominican winter league coming
off a 1937 major league season in which he’d posted a 1.022
OPS, Mize claimed opponents would intentionally walk Dihigo to
face him instead.

 

According to author Peter Bjarkman, "Each time
a new Negro League great inherited his rightful spot as "greatest
ever" at a new slot on the diamond—say, Satchel Paige
on the mound, Oscar Charleston in the outfield, Judy
Johnson
at third, or Buck Leonard at first—it
was common practice to note that the new immortal had no parallel
at his position except the immortal Dihigo." According to
Bjarkman, while some say he played every position on the field
with equal grace, he caught only as a fill-in or promotional activity,
and was not a great catcher.

 

But his versatility extended beyond playing. As a manager,
he won championships in Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela. Bjarkman’s
material strongly suggests Dihigo had the easygoing, sunny personality
that many extraordinarily talented athletes who also have brains
exhibit (Edgar Martínez and Cal Ripken, Jr.,
for example). He had a talent for language that helped him as
a manager, too; his English was fluent and colloquial, and he
was, according to the sources, a very scientific tactician. After
his on-field career ended, he became a popular radio game-announcer—and
the beloved national hero ultimately became the Minister of Sports
for his country after the 1959 revolution.

 

WHY UNDERSTANDING DIHIGO IS UNDERSTANDING CUBA

 

This kind of stuff makes one’s head spin. Discount as
apocryphal half of what’s here (I’ve already excised
a ton), and it still stretches my Calvinist world view into a
Klein’s bottle. But to go to Cuba today, to meet the people,
to see the way they run their institutions, and to watch their
League baseball, is to understand Dihigo. And vice-versa.

 

This was hammered home when we stepped off a bus in Cruces,
the town in Cienfuegos province where Dihigo retired to and where
he’s buried. The Cubaball tour folk had told us we were in
for a surprise. Several people joked that Martín was really
alive and was going to have coffee with us. When the bus pulled
up to the small town’s museum/community center, who should
be standing there but Martín Dihigo himself
, looking
58 but as fit as he’d been in his late playing days.

 

It was actually his son, Martín, Jr., as courtly and slender and relaxed
  as his father, with an alert but aware grin, speaking perfect colloqu WIDTH="324" HEIGHT="306" ALIGN="RIGHT" BORDER="0" NATURALSIZEFLAG="3" vspace="3" hspace="3">ial
  American English even though he hadn’t been to the U.S. since the end of
  his own minor league career (1959-62 for A league teams in the Cincinnati system).

 

Martín, Jr. and his fellow Crucians treated us to juice
drinks and an amateur entertainment show before presenting each
of us with a flower for our pilgrimage (the first such visit by
non-Cubans ever) to the tomb of El Inmortal.

 

Standing in the tropical sun in Cruces’ graveyard, watching
families walking to their families’ tombs, listening to the
soft Spanish patter, what struck me was how understanding the
enshrined Dihigo was the key to understanding Cuba.

 

Versatility

is a necessity on the island,
even in the best of times.
With a population of eleven million,
there no room for fine specialization in professions. So, for
example, if you meet a senior U.S. economist with clout, he has
a specialty, a filter like ‘monetary policy’ through
which he views the world. People here with monetary, fiscal, labor
and trade policy interests would be perceived as mere dilettantes
and relegated to teaching at a community college. In Cuba, what
we see as a dilettante is called ‘interdisciplinary’
and that’s viewed as a compliment. You can’t just be
an urban planner, you have to be a sociologist and psychologist,
too and know how to build roads. You own a car? You gotta be an
auto mechanic.

 

In post-1959 Cuba, the league structure has amplified this
already-existing trend. There are 16 teams in the league, 13 representing
provinces, two representing Havana and one representing the part
of Havana province that isn’t the city. You play for the
province you’re from. It’s like Olympic teams; you can’t
generally move to another province if you’re trapped behind
some Lou Gehrig, and teams can’t trade to fill weaknesses
by offering surpluses. If you’re a third-baseman stuck behind
Omar Linares (the current most-well-known Cuban star) you
outplay him or learn to play a different position but there’s
no rescue to be had in being trade bait. One former Cienfuegos
team player told me he’d changed from pitching to first base
halfway through his career. I assumed given that particular progression
that his arm had blown out, but he said not; the team had a surplus
of pitchers and he was the province’s best (not necessarily
very good) first-sacker at the time.

 

Gentility

exists at a remarkably high level
in ordinary human interaction (except on the telephone)
. I’ve
been to several Latin American countries and spent time during
my teenage years working alongside Mexican and Mexican-American
farm workers picking citrus and strawberries, and my experience
has been that Latin cultures curse and ##### about as much non-Midwestern
Americans do. Cuba surprised me.

 

In the 18 days I’ve spent there, I heard only one curse-word,
voices raised only twice (once over who was the current best player
in the league, once, as it turned out, in jest). Batters who just
hate that called third strike seem to allow themselves about half-a-second
of glaring at the ump and never an uttered word when we were looking.
Most of the times a batter gets his first appearance in a game,
he shakes hands with the catcher and the home-plate ump. On plays
at the plate, even in close games, the catcher acts like a first
baseman, staying out of the path of the runner, and the runner
will not intentionally nail the catcher, politely sliding away
from the side of the plate the catcher is touching. The same courtesy
extends to plays at the pivot and in rundowns.

 

In the sixth inning stretch, young women bearing trays of hot
Cuban coffee and cold water come out so the umps can have a proper
break.

 

What’s most remarkable to me is that—for some reason
no one can figure out—the Cubans don’t hate our guts
because we’re American. I know we wouldn’t return the
favor if the tables were turned; if they’d spent a over decade
trying to assassinate our political leader, had sent terrorists
to bomb one of our largest department stores in our largest city,
had trained rebels to invade our country and supported that invasion
with their government’s troops, had told companies from other
countries that if they traded with our citizens, they’d be
cut off from trading with them, and filled our radio for decades
with Tokyo Rose broadcasts designed to demoralize us. I’d
be pissed as hell, myself.

 

It’s as though the Cuban government has imposed a school-uniform
code for human relations in public. I’m assuming my sample
yields a roughly-correct observation—other, more frequent
travelers tend to agree with me. And I’m assuming it’s
part of "the revolution" that has imposed this singularly
non-Latin social behavior (quite different from my observation
of the Cuban community in Miami).

 

Invention

and creative experimentation (that sometimes
  works and sometimes doesn’t) seems to be hallmark of both their baseball
  and their society.
On the field, we saw an average of about five hit-and-run
  plays per game, runners testing outfielders’ arms early and often (a la
  competitive softball & resulting in both a lot of snuffed runners and a
  cornucopia of errant throws) and as many different defensive rotation schemes
  on bunts as most NFL defenses keep in their entire playbook (which sometimes
  work perfectly and sometimes are humiliatingly unsuccessful as we saw when a
  batter deftly short-chopped a hard bunt through the exact spot the shortstop
  had been standing before the defense went into its ornate choreography). WIDTH="242" HEIGHT="301" ALIGN="LEFT" BORDER="0" NATURALSIZEFLAG="3" vspace="3" hspace="3">

 

The pressure never stops; there’s never a runner-on-first
moment when the hit-and-run might not be rolled out, where a pickoff
play might be tried. If you play (or watch) Cuban baseball, you
take nothing for granted.

 

For example, we saw Havana province’s team, La Habana,
victimized by Ciego de Avila’s squad on a magnificent double
play. With the score 3-1 in La Habana’s favor, their first
baseman Pedro Arozarena singled to lead off, and after
a fly out, the skipper called for the hit and run. Right-fielder
Armando Balaguer sliced a low looping fly down the first
base line that was far enough foul and deep enough to require
a very fine over-the-shoulder catch by Ciego’s first baseman,
Dany Miranda, at the wall more than half-way down the line.
He spun and doubled-off the runner with an on-target but gentle
throw to the pitcher, covering.

 

At least, that’s what most of us saw. A couple of the
sharper pairs of eyes noticed Ciego executing the phantom double
play—the shortstop, Jose Ramon Alfonso, realizing
the runner can’t see the ball is foul on that play, pretends
to field a grounder, and he and his keystone partner Mario
Vega
execute a balletic and completely imaginary 6-4-3 on
which the runner "bites," taking him out of a chance
to get back to first safely.

 

Lovely stuff. Subtle, tactical, always keeping pressure on
the opponent, and, most importantly, never delivering the expected
move or obvious countermove. If you follow Cuban politics, that’s
the very essence of Fidel Castro’s management of his
island’s foreign policy, the technique that has kept the
regime in business 10 years after 85% of the trading volume he
had vaporized over a three week period, after he cut his defense
budget 75%, after years of a punishing trade embargo launched
and maintained by the only superpower in the world, a nation with
26 times Cuba’s population and military spending 360 times
as large.

 

Here are a few more examples:

 

Centralized planning doesn’t work? The Cubans decentralized
non-industrial planning before Gorbachev invented perestroika.

 

The U.S. tries to escalate its pressure on the Cuban government
by declaring all Cuban refugees to be political and therefore
high-priority for legal immigration?
The Cubans empty their
prisons and drug rehab facilities and dump them on the U.S.’
naively open arms, turning a "debit" (prison and rehab
costs) into a phantom double play that catches high-paid U.S.
foreign policy talent flat-footed and completely out of position.

 

Can’t afford fertilizer, pesticides or hormones to
make agribusiness successful any more?
Privatize all the farms,
jettison the factory farm model and convert mostly to organic
practices, the products of which can carry higher price tags.

 

The World Bank and IMF say the public debt ratio is too
high and spending on education & health is too high as a percentage
of GDP?
Allow the creation of private businesses that on the
books carry most of the nation’s debt (in effect, privatizing
the deficit) leaving the globalists stewing in their own rigid
ratios.

 

Making their own way

is another parallel
between Cuba’s trajectory and Dihigo’s career
. El
Inmortal couldn’t play in the Majors because of his skin
color, but he carved out a distinctive career by plying his trades
in several leagues, doing it his own way and making the best of
the situation.

 

Cuba seems to have consciously followed that path for good
and ill, rejecting professionalism in baseball and accepting the
consequences . Without trades, investments in training are amortized
over the full career of a player; unlike in professional leagues,
management doesn’t have to worry that spending a lot on training
(or preserving a pitcher’s career for the long term by regulating
his pitch count) won’t pay itself back because the guy will
earn free agency and leave before the investment can be recovered.
So pitchers tend to be protected, no-one "guts-out"
an injury (trainers swarm on the field at every chance for a consultation).

 

While the average level of athleticism doesn’t seem as
high as the Major Leagues, these guys know how to play, how to
run plays, how the game is meant to be played, in all its physical
and mental intensity. They’ve opted for the pure, de-commercialized
view that naïve eight-year old boys seeing their first games
have—it’s not about contracts and options and endorsement
deals and agents and luxury boxes. It’s about the game on
the darned field; it’s about pride in one’s country
or province; and it’s about winning games.

 

(A final, political, note on making your own way. Cuba is
still considered a pariah by U.S. politicians, and years of legislation
and futile attempts to snuff its leader and government have only
resulted in escalations that have, inevitably, failed, too. Functionally,
U.S. citizens can go to Cuba, but only with a license or on a
tour that has a license.

 

If you’re going to Cuba to see baseball, there are
three options: take a baseball tour, take another licensed tour
and veer off on your own for the baseball, or go it alone, make
your own way. The Cubans don’t care one way or the other;
they seem to be happy to have tourists from any location, especially
those who know about baseball. But logistics can be challenging,
and the paperwork is not severe but not to be sneezed at: the
first time you go, make it simpler for yourself and take a licensed
tour.

 

Given the fact that only three countries in the world comply
with the embargo (the U.S. and two small nations that are wholly-owned
subsidiaries), that the regime gave up communism eight years ago
and is actively pursuing joint ventures with businesses around
the world, that massive, profitable deals are being done right
now, the odds that U.S. business will allow themselves to be locked
out of such a convenient and open-for-the-taking market are not
great. It won’t be long before the embargo is completely
unenforced or (less likely) repealed, and then free-wheeling solo
trips will become more convenient.)

 

SOME FINAL OBSERVATIONS FROM THE STANDS

 

With this system, the level of play is very uneven. In a nation
of eleven million people and 16 teams, the talent—even if
probably much greater per-capita—is simply not as deep as
it is in the majors. My estimation is that the average league
team has one-to-four Major League caliber players, four-to-eight
AAA players, five-to-ten AA guys, a handful of A leaguers and
a couple of guys who might not even make the pros. The watchability
of the games is very high for the reasonably educated fan, and
it’s fun to see the game played in its unmutated, de-commercialized
form at such a high level (yes, college mostly is, too, but even
the top college teams aren’t near this level).

 

The fans are pretty knowledgeable—Chicago-quality, I’d say. Prices
  are kept low (15 cents and 5 cents for Cubans, $3 for non-Cubans who are given
  seats you dream about getting back home) and kids apparently get in free after
  the game starts, and as far as any of us could see, no one was there just to
  be seen. The hecklers were persistent but not vulgar, the rooting spirited.
  Apparently fans of Havana’s main team, the Industriales, are very rabid,
  but the city’s other team, the Metropolitanes, while a solid club, doesn’t
  have the following and our pair of games watching them were shared with more
  fans from the distant Isla de Juventud province cheering the visitors. WIDTH="218" HEIGHT="166" ALIGN="RIGHT" BORDER="0" NATURALSIZEFLAG="3" vspace="3" hspace="3">

 

Attendance is uneven, too. The change in Cuba’s economy
since 1993, when the U.S. dollar was made a second official currency
(there are actually three—how’s that for an experiment?)
has been hard for baseball. The chase for dollars, which people
can use to buy items they can’t buy with Cuban pesos, has
re-directed many fans’ energy away from their worship of
The Game. Some players have seen the chance to play against the
best and/or to earn enough money to support entire extended families
and/or to live in a country with fewer proscriptions by applying
their skills in the Majors. One retired player told me fewer youngsters
dream of being League players than when he was a youth 15 years
ago because today’s kids know they can earn bigger bucks
as waiters in tourist hotels.

 

But for many of the kids, the dream lives on, altar boys at
High Mass, using the original hymnals, a service in the Mother
Tongue of the Soul, worshipping the One True Religion, in the
Vatican of Baseball.

 

Gordon Whitesmith is the pen name of a baseball fan who respects the political realities of the U.S. enough to go to Cuba without a license, but who acknowledges without respect the power of law enforcement authorities to mess with him or her if we used the actual nym.

 



LINKS TO CUBAN BASEBALL SUBJECTS

 

Cubaball Tours

1-week tour is currently $1,800 U.S., departing from Toronto or
Vancouver, B.C.

 

Cuban
league statistics:


It helps if you understand a little Spanish, but the newspaper
keeps standings, team statistics, rosters and category leader
tables on this site.

 

Facts
about travel to Cuba & U.S. requirements:


http://www.havanacuba.com/pages/americans_cuba.htm

 

Sources for Dihigo career info:

Bjarkman, Peter,

Baseball With A Latin Beat

, McFarland
& Company, Jefferson, NC, 1994.

Riley, James,

The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro
Leagues

, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 1994.

Rucker, Mark & Bjarkman, Peter,

Smoke: The Romance &
Lore of Cuban Baseball

, Total Sports Illustrated, Kingston,
NY, 2000.

 

Other sources for Cuban baseball history:

Gonxalez Echevarria, Roberto,

The Pride of Havana: A History
of Cuban Baseball

, Oxford University Press, New York,
1999.

 

PHOTO CREDITS

 

Scoreboard courtesy of Eric Enders (visit Eric’s
web site
for interesting perspectives on baseball, books and
film noir)

 

Dihigo photograph courtesy of Mark Rucker

 

Dihigo, Jr. photograph courtesy of Bill Nowlin

Gordon Whitesmith Posted: April 17, 2001 at 06:00 AM | 0 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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