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Karl Lindholm: Oscar and me and the Cubaballistas

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Posted on November 5, 2015 |
By Karl Lindholm



game action Matanzas.JPG
A PITCHER FOR the defending National Series champs Matanzas Cocodrilos sends one in toward a Mayabeque Hurricanes batter during a recent baseball game in Cuba. The Caribbean island nation plays baseball at a very high caliber. Photos courtesy of Karl Lindholm

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts.

I followed Oscar.

He gestured subtly and said, “Come with me.”

We had just been entertained by Victor Mesa, the manager of the Matanzas Cocodrilos, in the clubhouse just a half-hour before his game against Ciego de Avila.

As a player, Mesa was considered the Willie Mays of Cuba. He has gone on to manage both the Matanzas team in the Serie Nacional and the Cuban National Team in international competition.

I was reluctant, but Oscar reassured me, “Don’t worry.” Clearly, he knew his way around.

He led me through the clubhouse, then into the dugout and out onto the playing field, in the last preparations for the imminent contest. The players had finished their pregame rituals. The umpires were on the field. Fans were entering the ballpark and finding their seats. The rhythmic drumming and bleating of noisemakers had already begun.

I felt about 10 years old, timid, with my dad entering this sanctum sanctorum. Yet there we were, taking it all in, walking about on the field behind home plate as if we owned the place.

Soon, we heard a voice calling to us. It was Ben, the youngest member of our Cubaball party, in the stands above us, gesticulating with his notebook and pen, playing along, soliciting our “autografo,” and explaining in Spanish to Cuban fans that Oscar and I were visiting baseball dignitaries from the USA.

I signed, “Best wishes, Ernest Hemingway”; Oscar wrote “con mucho gusto.” Earlier that day we had visited Hemingway’s Havana home, Finga Vigia, and I had been playfully identified as Papa Hemingway. Any man of a certain age with a big gut and white beard seems to qualify.

One can do worse than follow Oscar Soule around Cuba. Part-leprechaun in appearance, he is a man of personality and wit, and he possesses an unflappable nature and the keen intelligence that befits his status as emeritus professor of Ecology at Evergreen State University in Olympia, Wash., not to mention brass cojones (that’s a Hemingway term). He is a world traveler, a connoisseur of Cuban cigars and baseball, the heart and soul of Cubaball. This was his 8th baseball trip to Cuba.

After our foray out on the field, Oscar and I settled into our seats right behind home — and what ensued that night in Matanzas, Cuba, was just about the best baseball game I have ever witnessed in person.

I was in Cuba under the auspices of Cubaball, the brainchild of one Ernest “Kit” Kreiger, of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, by way of New York. A former teacher, Kit is the progenitor and sole proprietor of Cubaball and has been taking “Cubaballistas” on baseball excursions since the mid-1990s: This was his 14th such trip to Cuba, and his last, he proclaimed at the outset.

By the end of the week, however, Kit, or “El Jefe,” was weakening and talking about “next year” because we were so cool. There were 15 of us in all, a diverse and congenial group, from all over — New York, Vermont, Alabama, Texas, Paris, Vancouver, Washington state, Washington, D.C.

Kit has earned tremendous access in Cuba over the years. We were accompanied for most of our trip by ballplayer Enrique Diaz, recently retired as the Cuban career leader in both hits and stolen bases — he’s Cuba’s Pete Rose and Rickie Henderson. We met a number of other retired Cuban players, including Luis Zayas, the sole surviving Havana Sugar King (the Sugar Kings were the AAA minor league team of the Cincinnati Reds from 1954-60).

Perhaps the most important person on our trip was not a player or a Cubaballista: it was Clem Paredes, a legal émigré from Cuba to Toronto, who helps Kit set up these trips and then comes along, providing translations from English to Spanish and vice versa. His translations are spontaneous, skillful and smooth, and were so crucial to our understanding when we met with Cuban Beisbolistas. He also provides sharp cultural commentary.

Oh yes, the game:

Defending National Series champs, Matanzas, was pitted against the first place team in the league this season, Ciego de Avila. There was palpable excitement in the park, about 6,000-8,000 fans in all, each paying three Cuban pesos to enter (25 Cuban pesos to the dollar).

BASEBALLISTAS FROM CUBABALL 2015 gather at the main cemetery in Havana, which has two large monuments to players, managers, and umpires. Kit Kreiger of Vancouver, British Columbia, progenitor and sole proprietor of Cubaball, his 14th such venture to Cuba, is in the red shirt.

There are few distractions in Cuban ballparks, no diamond vision scoreboards, no advertising, just baseball. No beer sales.

I asked a Cuban friend of our party why no beer was sold at games, and he looked at me and swept his hand to encompass the stands: “Listen to these fans — they need beer?”

“Cacophony” is the word that comes to mind to describe the atmosphere at the games. Think international soccer matches. The drumming and noisemakers (sirens and other ear-splitting devices) are incessant. The fans respond to every pitch with howls of approval or protest, especially if the game is tight and the home team performing well.

The Tigres of Ciego jumped out to a 2-0 lead, to the dismay of the home folks, who knew their boys would have no easy time with Ciego pitcher, Vladimir Garcia, an enormous man with plenty of National Team experience and a Sonny Liston baleful glare.

But the Cocodrilos scratched their way back into the game, tying the score in the fourth inning and then striking for two more runs, taking a precarious 4-2 lead into the ninth inning.

With two outs in the ninth, Matanzas seemed to have the game in hand, but a bloop hit followed by a sharp single put Tigres at first and third. A wild pitch then brought in a run. 4-3. Mesa intentionally walked the next hitter, putting the tie-breaking run on base! Two outs, two on. Deafening din.

The next hitter (I’d tell you their names but there are no programs or scorecards) belted a line drive up the middle. The runners were off to the races. The Matanzas centerfielder rushed in, fielded the ball cleanly and fired a laser to home, slightly up the first base line.

The runner slides. . .

The catcher dives. . .

OUT!

Game over.

Bedlam.

 

A FARMER IN rural Cuba tends an organic farm in a scene observed recently by a baseball fan on the way from Havana to Matanzas to see a game.

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