Blind Men from Cuba
Although young Cubans are less than thrilled by baseball, retirees and loyal fans of the world's slowest and most dragged-out sport cling to the idea that, in addition to containing a rich set of strategies, baseball still offers an escape from hardship, empty refridgerators and social unrest.
It is a distraction, especially during a round-trip journey in a crowded bus. Fans spend four or five hours a day discussing statistics, chatting about what "Radio Bemba" has to say about the latest MLB signings, the player who jumped the fence, setting up a board to throw darts at the federation's corrupt officials, and the players making up the national team (camouflaged as Ciego de Ávila players) who will take part in the next Caribbean Series.
One of those last circles where all the talk is still about baseball, and only baseball, and soccer is viewed as a rudimentary and banal sport, gets together every Friday in John Lennon Park, Vedado, Havana.
Its president, Sergio Giralt, is a wiry mulatto who can spend hours talking baseball. The group is called MLB.com, and every day at 5:00 pm a group of fans shares statistics on the Major Leagues and analyse what is ailing the game of balls and strikes on the island.
Just across from them stands the house of Víctor Mesa, manager of the national team. "A couple of times he came by here to talk ball with us," recalls Giralt, who once a week downloads baseball news and stats from the Internet.
They don't even want to talk about the Caribbean Series. "More of the same. Puregrandstanding. The press stumbles over itself to say that the other teams are getting stronger, when it’s just the opposite. Those are like patches they have to use to replace their star players," says one regular at John Lennon Park.
Michel Contreras, the most honest and trusted sportswriter among fans, wrote an article in Cubadebate reproaching the baseball bosses for their stubborn habit of taking the national team to compete in any and all events.
It doesn´t matter whether it´s a series against an American college team, a port tournament in Rotterdam, or an inconsequential friendly in the Philippines. When it's time to board the plane, it's always the same old players.
And the illustrious surname Gourriel is always amongst those called. Yulieski, pound-for-pound the best Cuban baseball player there is, through some mysterious kind of shenanigans, has placed a spell on the National Federation.
In one of his tantrums last summer he asked to be dropped from the team when Roger Machado didn't select his younger brother Lourdes.
If there weren´t so many rumors surrounding Yulieski Gourriel (that he is married to a granddaughter of Raúl Castro, that he's a friend of Raúl Guillermo, the solitary figure who serves his grandfather as a bodyguard) he would have already been sanctioned by the local committee.
"There are no precedents in the history of baseball since 1959 of a player who does not want to join Cuba's national team. I'm sure if it was anyone else he'd be cutting sugarcane or expelled for life," said Joan, a regular at the downtown baseball fan club in the Parque Central, right in the heart of the capital.
Nobody denies that Yulieski is a star. In the mediocre National Series he batted almost 500. And when he stands at home plates, opposing pitchers look like Davids facing a Goliath.
Even taking it easy Yulieski is the king of the bat and ball this season. Siting at his home in the town of Playa, age 31, he yearns to be the first Cuban to sign an MLB contract, just like that.
Believe me that right now he is the only player with such a proven track record that could make the leap without going through the farm system. In the Japanese League, where he played for just one season, he showed what he was made of.
Gourriel is an everyday player. Playing long seasons. When his knees start to shake, his blood gets pumping and his bat starts to twitch in his hands is in the do-or-die games.
Yulieski is a kind of Cuban Alex Rodríguez, admitting the obvious differences, without taking steroids and with friends and relatives who run the country like a private estate.
What has fans in Havana engrossed is the attitude of Roger Machado, manager of the Ciego de Ávila Tigers. "If he put it in my hand in the Pan Am Games, in Toronto, if I were Machado I'd make him ride the bench this time. Yeniet Perez was one of his players key to winning the championship. And this second time around he has six home runs. It was enough for Roger not to have fielded Yuli, but Machado is not calling the shots alone," says Fernando, in an improvised "hot corner" (baseball talk circle) in the Parque Mónaco, while trying to connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi.
Leaving aside the soap opera of Yulieski, the national team that will play in Santo Domingo is the best squad available. Missing are the pitchers Freddy Asiel Álvarez and Yosvani Torres, due to injuries.
The goal is to repeat the title they won back in San Juan. But it is always a double-edged sword; if they win, there will be no waves of praise, as they go in as the favorites, and if they lose they will make fools of themselves.
Even with 90% of the team, victory is not a sure thing. The level of the National Series is the weakest in the Caribbean. The island's bigwigs are violating no rules by fielding the country's creme de la creme. They have the right to do so.
The problem is an ethical one. For many players from Ciego de Ávila the Caribbean Series is their only chance to travel abroad and experience top-quality baseball. Being the champion would allow them to mask the poor quality of our baseball.
You'll probably tell me that one goes to a tournament to win. But one also goes to have fun. After all, baseball is a game.