By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
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.
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 www.baseballdecuba.com.)
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!)
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.
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.