Doing baseball in Cuba, a year from right now! A Cuban writer and I hope to work together.


DES MOINES, Iowa, Jan. 19, 2023 – It was cold, gray and snowing in Iowa as I started writing this.  The weather forecast was for up to a foot of snow in parts of the state. 

Mid-January. A perfect time in Iowa to, uh, be in Cuba.  Know what I mean?

In fact, until a few months ago, I thought I’d be spending this January and part of February in our neighboring nation to the southeast, on a grand baseball adventure that would let me really experience life from one end of the 750-mile-long island to the other.

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Los Alzanes, some of their children and fans from Granma province celebrating last year’s National Series championship after beating Los Cocodrilos of Matanzas. (Photo from the website

But the current Cuban baseball schedule threw a curve ball I couldn’t handle.  So I wound up postponing my project until this time next year, early 2024. 

I’m telling you about it now because I may need help from some of you readers to make it happen.  Like what kind of help? 

Well, there is probably going to be a challenge in persuading both governments to allow it. 

And my Cuban baseball-writing partner Yirsandy Rodriguez and his wife Ruth Soto, of Havana, and my wife Mary Riche and I, might want to invite a few special guests to join us at a couple of our stops.  Like who? Like, the presidents and baseball commissioners of our two countries.  It will take some arranging. (I hesitated after writing that, thinking, “Should I really say that?” My answer: “Why not?” We’ll invite them.)

It will also take some investment, but I’ve already started paying forward on that.  And I hope the stories that Yirsandy and I are writing a year from now become so popular that we’ll both pick up lots of paying subscribers to our Substack columns. (His is “Inside BaseballdeCuba” and mine is “Iowa Boy Chuck Offenburger.” Incidentally, that’s led Yirsandy to call me, in Spanish, “El legendario Chico de Iowa!” I like it!)

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Ruth Soto and Yirsandy Rodriguez after their recent marriage in Havana. (Photo from the couple)

Now, some background.

I’ve always been a little nuts for Cuba.  Maybe “enchanted by” is a better term.

When I was a kid in the 1950s back in my small hometown of Shenandoah in southwest Iowa, I can remember that some of the rich families would go on wintertime vacations to Cuba.  They’d come back and share their fascinating stories with readers of the old Evening Sentinel – palm trees, beaches, nightclubs, funky music, lively dancing and baseball!

Then in 1959, the spunky young guerrillas Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and others led the overthrow of the corrupt Cuban government of dictator Fulgencio Batista, and I was even more fascinated. 

In my high school years of the early 1960s and my college years of the late ’60s, those Cuban rebels were toasted in New York City, appeared on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” and became almost heroes to my generation of young Americans.

In my sophomore year at Vanderbilt University, I tried to make a collect call from our dormitory hall phone to Fidel Castro, on the chance I could interview him for my school’s newspaper. His office in Havana would not accept the charges.

Through the decades we watched – sometimes in bewilderment — at the repeated failures of American foreign policy in trying to do something about Cuba.  The failed invasion at the “Bay of Pigs.”  The CIA trying to kill or injure Fidel Castro by planting exploding cigars.  The “Cuban Missile Crisis.”  You can look ’em up.

There was the brief time of great hope from 2014 to 2017, when Pope Francis secretly convinced U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro to begin communications and then eventually face-to-face meetings in Cuba.  They decided to forgive, if not forget.  They encouraged new travel, exchanges and relationship-building between our peoples. 

They even went to an exhibition baseball game together, seeing the Tampa Bay Rays vs. the Cuban National Team in the 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana.  Maybe that gave me an idea.

But, as we know, the new goodwill between the two nations was scrapped by the administration of new U.S. President Donald Trump in early 2017. 

A couple months later, in late March and early April, 2017, I traveled to Cuba as one of 11 people in a delegation from our Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Des Moines.  We were the third or fourth group from our church to visit Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Marianao neighborhood of Havana.  This time we negotiated a formal “Sister Church” relationship.  In our 10 or so days there, I dived deeply into Cuban culture, history, politics, religion, food, music and more.  I fell ever more deeply in love with the nation.

But I was very disappointed that the Cuban professional baseball season – called the “National Series” – had already been completed for 2016-2017.  And I swore then that I would return to have a real baseball experience in Cuba.

And that’s what I’m going to be sharing in a few columns in the year ahead about our preparations, and then hopefully in daily reports early next year – from the island.

To get ready, I’ve read the authoritative and deeply-researched “A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006,” by the late American scholar and baseball fan Peter C. Bjarkman.  I’ve had long conversations with Cuba native and fan, Professor Juan Carlos Albarran, who teaches Latin American courses at Miami University in Ohio.  I’ve had several talks with State Rep. J.D. Scholten, who now serves the Sioux City area in the Iowa Legislature, and who played five games in Cuba in 2013 with a team of American college all-stars against Cuban pro teams that were in “spring training.”

And I’ve struck up an increasingly close friendship the last three or four years with Yirsandy Rodriguez, the Cuban writer I mentioned earlier.

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Ruth and Sandy at home in Havana. (Photo from the couple)

“Sandy,” as he’s told me to call him, is at 33 years old one of the leading baseball correspondents in his country.  He has covered all levels of baseball, from youth leagues up through the Cuban pro league to the Cuban players who are now stars in Major League Baseball in the U.S.  He knows and writes the history.  He profiles the grand characters.

His primary audience the past seven years has been the international readers of the 20-year-old website, but as I mentioned earlier, he is now also doing stories on Substack.Growing up in Havana, he played baseball “when my knee problems weren’t with me,” and he also has played and later coached softball.  He passed a course and test at the age of 14 to become a nationally-certified baseball scorekeeper, and at age of 19 he became the official scorer at Estadio Latinoamericano – the youngest ever to hold the position.He earned a degree in graphic design, also studied computer science, worked several brief jobs and then became the headline baseball columnist for the website of Cuban national radio station Radio Rebelde.  In 2014, Ruth Soto, also a Havana native, earned her degree in journalism and went to work as an editor for Radio Rebelde’s website.   She and Sandy struck up a friendship that turned into a relationship, and they married this past November after seven years together.They work in very difficult conditions because of the economic challenges soaring inflation has caused in Cuba.  In addition, there are frequent electricity outages, and internet availability is wobbly.  All this while they are doing extensive remodeling of the very small (25-square-meter) “dilapidated” house they inherited, and caring for Sandy’s ailing grandmother, who lives with them now.

I’ll tell you a whole lot more about Sandy and Ruth in the future.

What I’ve become convinced of in my studies of Cuban baseball and my reading of Sandy’s columns, is that the Cuban “National Series” is an almost ideal level of adult men’s baseball – in the way it is set up, the quality of its play, and the love of its fans.

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The champs Los Alzanes from Granma whooping it up after their championship last year. (Photo from website

There are 15 provinces in Cuba, and each has its own pro team (but Havana, with a population of more than 2 million, has two teams).  As I said earlier, going to home games of each of those teams will take us all over the island, which is home to 11 million.  Most of the players are playing for the teams in their home provinces, so there is special pride and loyalty. 

“The Cuban fans are just electric,” said J.D. Scholten, the Iowa legislator who has played in Cuba. “When we were playing the team the Industriales in Havana during that series, we had to change stadiums at the last minute because of some repairs that were happening. But we still had 3,000-plus fans show up!”

What Sandy and I are planning is that from early January until mid-February, we’ll travel by car, bus, train or plane to travel between the cities, staying in hotels or with host families.  We’ll eat in local restaurants, see the leading attractions, seek out interesting characters and go to the ball games. We’ll both write almost daily in our Substack columns, on and probably on  Our wives say they’ll accompany us for at least part of the travels.

The regular season of 80 or so games generally runs from November to February, with playoffs to follow.

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Yirsandy Rodriguez, in 2017, when he started his long relationship as a columnist and analyst with the website (Photo from the website.)

But this year, the schedule has been radically altered. The occasional “World Baseball Classic” is being held in March, and so normal schedules were set aside so a Cuban National Team can be developed for the global competition.   Prospective players for the national team were divided up among six teams in an “Elite League,” which is finishing its championship series this week, and the best of them will start training for the national team in another week or so.

This kind of fiddling with the schedule happens in years when the Olympics Games are held, too.

Presumably this year’s normal season for the provincial teams – remember it’s the “National Series” – will be held sometime later in 2023.  And then I’m hoping the 2023-2024 National Series is back on regular schedule late this year and early next.

People in the U.S. who are interested in baseball are going to be a whole lot more excited to read columns about Cuba and Cuban baseball, if I’m publishing them in January and February.  Later in the spring, summer and fall, their interest is filled by coverage of Major League Baseball happening in the States.

I so hope it will all comes together.  And I hope some of you will help me make it happen if I call on you.

As we say when the snow’s blowing in Iowa in mid-January, jugar a la pelota!   (Actually, that’s “Play ball!” in Spanish.)

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