Chuck Williams: Baseball's a hit in Cuba

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comMay 19, 2014 

It was a quick exchange, taking less than 30 seconds in a crowded market in the Central District of Havana.

Yes, Cuba.

My wife and I just spent a week there on U.S. visas as part of the People to People cultural exchange that allows Americanos like us to legally travel in the socialist state just a 40-minute plane ride from Miami International Airport.

But this is not about politics. It’s about baseball, a game that transcends culture and political differences.

Much of the trip, I wore my fitted Braves baseball cap — size 7 5/8. I also took eight baseballs purchased at a Miami Walmart to the island on the advice of our American tour guide.

It was a great suggestion.

My goal was to leave Havana with a Cuban baseball cap, and I knew it was going to probably cost me the Braves cap purchased at Turner Field two seasons ago. I also wanted to use my passion for baseball to overcome my inability to speak Spanish.

Baseball is a universal language, I hoped.

Which brings us back to the market. Picture a craft fair, art gallery and food court on steroids. And when it is raining, as it was that afternoon, imagine a river flowing into it.

As we entered the market, there was a Cuban man wearing a blue hat with a red C. It immediately registered as the cap worn by the Cuban national baseball team.

As we passed, I pointed to the man’s cap. He pointed back at mine. No words needed.

I took off the worn, sweat-soaked Braves cap and handed it to him. He handed me his, also a fitted cap. Mine fit him. His fit me.

In the time it took each of us to put on the other’s hat, the deal was done. He kept walking toward the exit and I moved deeper into the market.

There was not a single word spoken. He knew what he was getting, and so did I. And we both hit a grand slam. It was obvious from early in the Cuba trip the power of baseball. There are fields and sandlots scattered throughout Havana. There is a field around the corner from Plaza de la Revolución, Cuba’s version of the Washington Mall.

It is clearly the national pastime. Talk to a bartender, a bus driver or the guy walking the streets of Havana, and odds are they are fans of the Industriales — basically the Cuban Yankees.

Before trading my Braves cap, it proved to be a conversation starter.

Walking into an Italian restaurant in Havana — worst meal of the trip — the maître d’ approached and asked about my Anaheim hat. I told him it was Atlanta.

He began to talk about his team, the Industriales, who apparently fell short of a title in the Cuban National Series.

After lunch, I gave him one of the baseballs and found out his name was Mario. A bartender saw the exchange, so he got a baseball, too.

As our group congregated outside the restaurant, the two men approached. They had a blue book that tells the history of the Industriales. They signed it and offered it as a gift.

One of the men in our group was fluent in Spanish and he translated our conversation.

At the end, Mario said he wanted to watch a game and drink a beer with me. But he said he wanted to do it “over there” as he pointed toward the water and the United States shore.

How do you respond to that?

Saturday, as the trip was winding down, our bus circled back into Central Havana. As we exited the highway, a dozen or more boys and young men were playing a pickup baseball game in the middle of the interchange.

The only way to explain it: Imagine a game in the greenspace where J.R. Allen Parkway and I-185 connect.

You get the picture.

We parked four blocks away for a choir performance that was one of the last activities of the trip.

Our group headed into the auditorium. Not me. I walked back toward the baseball game and was joined by two guys on the trip.

When we reached the game, a light rain was falling.

We crossed three major roads and got to the makeshift diamond.

They were using an old aluminum bat and a ball made of tape that jumped off the bat like a tennis ball.

The three of us watched for a minute, then the pitcher threw a wild pitch that sailed into the road.

I pulled a new baseball out of my pocket and tossed it to the pitcher.

At first, he looked at me like I was crazy. Then he smiled. Quickly 20 boys and men — from teenagers to young adults smoking cigarettes — were around us.

The five balls in my bookbag went quickly. I gave away an old cap I was wearing.

One of the kids began to beg. He wanted a dollar. My friend who spoke Spanish was taking in the scene.

As the boy started to beg, another person punched him on the shoulder. He called him an “ass.”

“This guy is giving stuff away,” the guy said to the beggar.

That ended it.

The game started back, and they put the new balls away and returned to playing with the old one. Their final gesture was to offer me an at-bat.

I took the old bat and stepped to the plate — a round piece of wood.

First pitch, I went deep to left field — or at least that is how it felt. The ball landed in the road.

I left Cuba batting 1.000.

Chuck Williams, senior editor for content, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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