El Cocodrilo, the baseball playing crocodile and beloved mascot of Cuba’s five-time consecutive champion of the Serie Nacional, Matanzas, sat atop the stadium. El Crocodrilo, the ‘Christ the Redeemer’-like statue of Matanzas, represented everything I knew of Cuba up until this point. It was a legendary matchup between two powerhouse teams—Industriales, the New York Yankees of Cuba and the powerhouse crown jewel of Havana vs Matanzas, the five-time reigning champion of El Serie Nacional. A bitter rivalry that promised to produce an unforgettable experience.
As I pulled up as a passenger to El Estadio de Guido in a mid-1980s Honda Accord choking out its dying breaths, my heart began to beat faster as I approached something that I knew inside and out for over 20 years, yet so foreign in this country—baseball. Little did I know, as with many things in Cuba, I was walking into a microcosm of which perpetuated the sentiments of the nation and the Cubanos.
I looked for a place to buy a ticket. At every entrance there was a group of guerras (soldiers) standing, eyeing my camera and myself, sticking out like the pseudo-tourist and amateur journalist sore thumb that I was. I walked up to the ticket window, one that looked like the ticket window of a high school football stadium built in 1962 and hadn’t been touched since (a staple of much of Cuba’s architecture). The man at the booth offered already used 50/50 tickets and held them out, not really demanding a price. I took out a coin, $.25 CUCs (or about $.25 American cents) and they signaled to me that that was good enough.
I entered the game, and I was immediately taken aback by the onslaught of sights and sounds that were so new to me. This wasn’t baseball. This was Cuba. As I stepped onto the “concourse” looking for a place to sit within the open seating arrangement, I looked out into the outfield admiring the ruby red cement walls in the background and taking in the powerful sounds of the plastic trumpets from the crowd.
Lights and power were missing from parts of the scoreboard, either from lack of resources or the strike of a baseball. Where we might find advertisements for Bud Light and McDonald’s sandwiching the box score, the innings, and the outs, I instead found in between a picture of Fidel Castro playing baseball in the 60s and a portrait of another revolutionary, whose name and face still escape me. On the outfield wall where we might see advertisements for Coke, Pepsi, or Jack In The Box, there were quotes from Cuban revolutionaries or other famous socialists or communists written in blue and white paint. My personal favorite of the quotes, which sat just above the bullpen in right field: “It’s not about the victory. It’s about the competition.” The competition. Socialism and competition, two things that don’t go hand in hand, but so incredibly perfect in emulating the dichotomies of Cuba and the intricate ironies that are peppered throughout the country.
The game is so different in Cuba. It’s unmistakably still baseball, just different. There was more bunting and base stealing in one inning of this game than I might see in two or three major league games. At one point, with runners on first and second, the pitcher from Industriales threw two pitches in the dirt in a row for balls. The catcher stood up, took his mask off and began screaming obscenities and yelling at his own pitcher in the middle of the game. The pitcher yelled back and flailed his arms in disagreement, so eerily reminiscent of the pirates playing baseball in Hook. In the United States, where there would be radio show hosts talking about the dysfunction of this team, in Cuba, there’s just the next out, the next strike, the next inning. There’s a game to be played and to love every second of.
The home run. One of Matanzas’ power hitters approached the plate. So much confidence in everything he did. A few pitches later, he launched a mammoth home run whose parabolic arch would be the replay in a Home Run Derby. It was absolutely, definitively, unmistakably, crushed. As the fans cheered wildly, at a decibel not much different from a routine ground ball fielded by Matanzas, which was deafening, to say the least, I watched in awe at how far and how high this guy had hit the ball. I looked back at the hitter to notice that he was still standing in the box with his bat up, admiring the home run he had just hit. Not an ounce of shame or discomfort at the enjoyment of the colossal home run he had just hit. After a few seconds that seemed like a minute to me, he began to round the bases. It was slow. He took in every single cheer from the crowd. Every smile that he had put on the face of a fan he felt. He was the king in his moment. Las guerras, la policia, los fanaticos, los jugadores, or Fidel; no one was going to take this moment from him. Suddenly the flash of Yasiel Puig, and Yoenes Cespedes all made sense. This was how they enjoyed the game. This is where you can have a voice. This is their culture.
As I sat and watched Matanzas take a commanding 7-3 lead over Industriales, I reflected back to the three plays I had seen. So remarkably different in their own ways. The aftermath of each so different from the media onslaught that would follow major leaguers. So outstanding and exceptional from the American game. Something that I would learn to come to understand on a deeper level.
Lightning struck no further than a mile away at the beginning of the seventh inning. Rain began to fall. The game continued as if it were a bright and sunny southern California day. There was no stoppage of play, no announcement over the loudspeaker, no rain delay. The grounds crew didn’t hustle on the field to unspool the tarp and cover the field. The game continued on. Nothing was going to keep this game from being played.
That night after the game, the husband of the couple I stayed with, in Matanzas, told me that watching the game on TV “is all bullshit. It’s propaganda and everyone knows it.” During the games, in the U.S. where announcers are supposed to be impartial, Cuban announcers make no qualms that they are rooting for Industriales, the pride of Havana. Everything Industriales did was perfect and followed by cheering and applause fit for a World Series game, while everything Matanzas, the five-time champion, did was wildly mediocre at best and followed with unenthusiastic yawns and “golf claps.” The announcers swaying the public’s opinion to the pride of Cuba, Industriales–one team for a country to unify behind. The people of Matanzas didn’t buy into it, They wore their Matanzas scarves with pride, and freedom.
Socio-political ideology permeated throughout every piece of this experience. Socialism vs. Capitalism, Grit vs. Laissez Faire, Passion vs. Methodical. U.S. tradition and method in contrast to Cuba’s vibrant celebration of the sport in which they love. Every inning, every strike marked the differences between our two cultures. Borders crossed, relationships healed, people understood through this beautiful game.
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