By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
DES MOINES, Iowa, July 22, 2023– In recent days, I finally have accepted reality and given up trying to make happen what would probably have been my last big reporting project – experiencing and writing about baseball in Cuba. Yes, I’m pouting about it.
As I told you early this year in a column, my plan was to spend most of next January and early February traveling with Cuban sportswriter Yirsandy Rodriguez to all 16 cities that have teams in Cuba’s National Baseball Series. My wife Mary Riche and Yirsandy’s wife Ruth Soto were going to accompany us on at least part of the trip.
A Cuban tourism map showing the location of the 16 cities with teams in the National Baseball Series.
Yirsandy and I planned on writing daily in our respective Substack columns, with our stories also being published on my website www.Offenburger.com and perhaps in other media. It’s likely Mary and Ruth would have written some, too, and Mary would have added photo essays. I was financially prepared to pay Yirsandy a salary and cover all our expenses.
At one point, I considered taking along up to a dozen of my readers who’d expressed an interest, which would have helped pay for the adventure. Cathy Greteman, president of Star Destinations, a travel agency in Carroll, Iowa, even put together an itinerary.
More likely, however, it was going to be Yirsandy and me, all-across-Cuba.
Yes, this was going to be all about baseball in that country. But it was also going to be about life in general in Cuba and about its people.
I was hoping – perhaps naively – that we might discover ways to heal 60 years of lousy relations between our governments. You think that couldn’t happen? Ever hear about the “Ping Pong diplomacy” that helped improve U.S. relations with China long ago?
Yirsandy Rodriguez in an easier time in 2017, covering a game at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana.
Alas, I’ve had to let go of my dream.
Cuba is a mess.
I’ve checked and re-checked with multiple sources all over Cuba — other journalists and authors, college professors, diplomats, even pastors.
They report that electrical outages are happening almost daily. Internet service is slow to unreliable, when and where available. Transportation is difficult. Yes, you can rent a car, van or bus. Yes, you’ll have difficulties finding fuel. While Cuba’s vaunted healthcare continues to be good, there are serious supply problems of pharmaceuticals and other medical supplies. Food supplies are irregular. Things are tougher when you get beyond Havana. Foreign press are not being credentialed. For crying out loud, we in America can’t even send postal letters to Cuba!
The determination and perseverance of the Cuban people to survive all this is one of the more inspirational stories in the world today.
U.S. foreign policy – particularly our blockade of trade with Cuba – is directly or indirectly responsible for a whole lot of this woe in our neighbor nation. Our policies have really only been successful in inflicting cruelty on the people of Cuba, most of whom are choking in poverty, crumbling infrastructure and other second-rate service from their own government.
Another Cuban tourism map, showing the major cities scattered across the 800 miles of the island nation.
It occurs to me that for 150 years, Cuba has been beaten up by one “-ism” or another.
First Cuba got screwed by the Spanish and colonialism. Then Cuba got screwed by the U.S. and capitalism. And then, post-revolution, came Communism. That system, when led personally by Fidel Castro, brought about 30 years of fairly successful re-development in Cuba, until about 1990. It’s been floundering ever since.
I’ve been fascinated by Cuba since I was a kid in Shenandoah in southwest Iowa back in the 1950s and ’60s. Wealthy people in my hometown would escape our extreme winters on vacation trips to tropical Cuba, coming home with suntans, rum, big cigars and fabulous stories about lolling on the beaches and in the nightclubs. But then the U.S.-supported regime of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista became as corrupt as it was brutal.
When the Castro brothers, Che Guevara and their young guerilla forces finally overthrew Batista in ’59, they were welcomed to the U.S.
They were featured on TV’s “Tonight Show” and the “Ed Sullivan Show.” They were honored with a parade in New York City. They’d become heroes to most of us in my generation.
A few know my story that in ’67, when I was a student journalist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., I placed a collect call from the hallway phone booth in my dormitory to Fidel Castro at his office in Havana. His receptionist asked the purpose of the call. The international operator said I was seeking an interview. The receptionist said “no” and declined the phone charges. Ridiculous, I know, but it was a nice try by a broke college student, wasn’t it?
All my warm feelings for Cuba were rekindled in the spring of 2017, when I spent 10 days there, mostly in the Havana region, on an educational experience with a delegation from my Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Des Moines. We were confirming a “sister church” relationship with Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana.
The Cuban baseball season had already ended then, but in conversations I learned that the people’s love of the game was still as strong as I’d always heard.
What we mostly knew of it, from just after World War II until the revolution, was that the very popular Havana Sugar Kings were the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds of Major League Baseball in the U.S.
Post-revolution, the ties to the U.S. game were severed. The Castro government helped establish the “National Baseball Series,” placing “professional” teams in each of the 16 provinces that span the 800-mile length of Cuba.
Ever since, the “series” has consisted of a regular season of about 75 games, generally played between late-November to late February – when the weather in Cuba is almost ideal – with playoffs at the conclusion to determine the national champion.
The players have played as much for provincial pride as they have for their meager salaries.
Fans flock to the games. Often there is additional entertainment provided by local bands, performing between innings in the stands. Concessions often feature home-baked delicacies.
There are great rivalries. Fans in the outlying cities hate the Havana Industriales, who play in the 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano in the capital city.
The team from Granma celebrating its 2022 championship. (Photo from the website BaseballdeCuba.com)
Other ball parks, seating from 6,000 up, are the homes of such teams as the Artemisa Cazadores (“Hunters”), the Matanzas Cocodrilos (“Crocodiles”), the Granma Alazanes (“Chestnuts” or “Coffee Growers”), the Pinar del Rio Vegueros (“Meadow Growers”), and the Sancti Spiritus Gallos (“Roosters”).
Of course, the desire of most of the great players in Cuba today is to sign contracts with MLB teams in America. The Cuban government now allows that but imposes heavy taxes on the salaries of the stars if they continue to live off-season in Cuba. And Cuban players and fans still get excited with the national team players in the Olympics, World Baseball Classic and Pan-American games.
But I’ve thought the game is purer– and probably more fun – as played by the provincial teams in the annual National Baseball Series.
In better times, touring those 16 cities and going to games in those 16 ball parks would attract baseball lovers from around the world, I think.
It would be a great way, a happy way, for visitors to experience life all over Cuba. Local businesses would thrive with the tourists coming. Great new international friendships would grow. Investments in infrastructure and facilities would happen, if allowed.
I still believe it’s a fabulous story, one that will be more do-able in years to come.
And thus it’s a story that somebody younger than this retired 76-year-old scribe is going to have to do.
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