Cuba Loves Baseball

Forget the Revolution, the embargo - even salsa and Fidel: 'Pelota' makes this island tick

"Armandito" - nothing more, just Armandito, like "Madonna" or "Cher" - sits under a wool blanket in Havana's Latinoamericano Stadium on a chilly night, doing what Cubans know the modest and grizzled little man best for: cheering on Cuban baseball.

"I love all sports, but baseball is our national game, our national passion," says Armandito, who is watching the national-champion Industriales play an east-island team called Granma. He is reputed not to have missed a local game in 37 years, though he says this is not quite true. "I worked in agriculture from '90 to '94, so during that period I did miss, I have to say. But I'm back," he adds between whoops and cheers, echoed by nearby fans. "I love baseball."

So do most of the 11 million people on this island. Whether it's small and not-so-small boys playing baseball on the street, an older man with a transistor radio glued to one ear watching a televised game, or a group heatedly discussing the previous night's game, there is nothing like a ball and bat to get a Cuban going.

"I don't think there's a worker in Cuba who gets up in the morning and doesn't think about baseball," says Industriales pitcher Orlando Duque Hernandez, who appears not to consider what he just said an exaggeration. "Baseball is a national symbol."

Walk down any street in Havana, and you're likely to come across a neighborhood game of pelota ("ball"). The bat may be a thin pipe or an old stick, and the ball a rock or a marble or some string wrapped with tape. They use terms like "out," "foul," and "inning," unchanged from the English, punctuating half-swallowed Spanish.

Then again, if baseball really is a national passion here, why is attendance for this Industriales-Granma battle so thin? Only a few hundred of Latinoamericano's 55,000 seats are filled. "It's a mystery to me," says Industriales shortstop Hermn Mesa, surveying the stands. "Although we didn't start this series well," he says. "Maybe they're mad at us."

Baseball here feels a little like old-time ball in the US, or maybe the high school game. There is nothing slick about the Cuban game: no expensive programs, no $4 soft drinks or heated box seats, and admission is just 5 cents. A top player's annual salary won't surpass $100 - although he just might be given a car by Fidel himself. Armandito received one from the Commander in 1982 just for being such a loyal fan.

What there is in Cuban baseball is quality. American scouts and managers keep a close watch on Cuban ballplayers.

"I can say honestly that I'm good, but it's hard because here in Cuba we have many very good players," says Lester Pea, a teenage spectator. He plays first base for a Havana youth team.

As Lester notes, Cuba, the reigning Olympic champion, has lost very few of its games with foreign competitors. It has dominated international amateur baseball for more than a decade. But recently Cuban baseball has been hit by defections, as US scouts have offered large cash prizes and a chance to play in the dreamed-of "major leagues."

A handful of players, mostly pitchers, have left Cuba for the United States in the '90s. Perhaps the biggest blows came last year, when pitchers Osvaldo Fernandez (now with the San Francisco Giants) and Livn Hernandez (he signed a four-year, $4.5-million contract with the Florida Marlins in January) said adios to Cuba.

But surprisingly, it is almost impossible to find any hard feelings toward them. "Each person is an individual with his own vision of the world, and he has to follow that vision," says shortstop Mesa, who has seen a half dozen of his colleagues depart from the Cuban national team. "I don't think people resent those who make that decision [to leave]."

Pitcher Hernandez, who helped Cuba win a gold in Barcelona in 1992, has no hard feelings toward his brother Livn. "He took his own path, and he's my blood. How could I wish for him anything but the best of luck?"

Hernandez, didn't play at the Atlanta Games this year. Officially, because of an arm injury. But the rumor is that the government didn't want to risk any bad publicity from a meeting of the two Hernandez brothers - or a second Hernandez defection. His absence, however, did nothing to deter Cuba from taking home the gold medal.

Nor does Euclide Rojas Carballoza feel any rancor - only a sadness that puts tears in his eyes - toward the son and national team player who defected in 1994. "I feel sad as a father, but happy that he's doing well where he is," Mr. Rojas says of his namesake, who plays AAA ball in Puerto Rico. "My dream is that one day things will change so his team can play here and I can see him again." Many Cubans have a similar hope.

"My dream - and believe me, it's not mine alone - is to see the Yankees playing a Cuban team on this very field," says Armandito, his eyes twinkling. "That would be a game we'd all come out for."

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