Domingo, 23 de Octubre de 2016
00:07 CEST.

Man cannot live on baseball alone

The bitter defeats of Cuba's national baseball team in the championships should give members of the Government pause and make them realize that many things have changed, while they have not. And there have now been too many losses to blame them on two or three individuals, an association, or even a ministry. The problem is structural, profound and systemic, and transcends the sphere of sports alone.      

It is easy to imagine the expectations that these types of international events generate on the island, which now involve opponents who are no longer the college students or amateurs Cuba used to face in the past. It is also easy to imagine how bad these losses sting for Cubans who still revere baseball as something as sacred as the flag or national anthem.

Most curious of all is that, for a while now, some Cubans, both on the island and living off it, have actually been hoping to see the national team humiliated. And, whether due to the nature of the situation, or by chance, their wishes are all coming true. I know of no similar cases in which citizens of a country jump for joy whenever the opposing them scores a goal, a point or a run.

Such an apparent contradiction has less discordant, more understandable explanations. At first glance, those who behave like this could be tarred as traitors, sellouts, outcasts and with an endless list of epithets. But those words only leave us in the same realm of emotions, without any real reasoning.

Totalitarian governments are forced to demonstrate to their people their superiority over other systems. Otherwise they are unable to justify their curtailed freedoms and rights. While statistics are regularly employed to persuade them, numbers are cold and unemotional. The citizens living in these societies have to feel privileged, sure that they have what others would like to have, at any time or any place on earth.

Sports, education and public health are those areas with the greatest social-emotional impact. No human and material resources were spared in this effort, and we Cubans came to seriously believe that we were the country with the world's best athletes, teachers and doctors. The budgets for these three areas knew almost no limits, and our athletes, teachers and doctors were able to compete, train and practice at a level competitive with others around the world. And because everything is a question of momentum, those achievements brought high self-esteem and, thus, better results, and no one knows what would have happened if the Soviet Union and the socialist camp had not fallen apart.

But even then athletes, teachers and doctors were like a "basic resource" of the Revolution. A neighbour of mine, who had been a coach and the head of a sports delegation, once told me that at hotels he used to take the first room on the hallway and sleep with the door open to keep a watch out for potential "deserters." International doctors were required to surrender their passports upon arrival in foreign countries. And each group had to put up with an "assistant" who "helped" travelling team members.   

However, the players, teachers and doctors from 25 years ago still competed, taught and healed with conviction rather than resources, with more passion than skill, with more faith than reason. What the Cuban government paid (almost nothing) didn't matter. It was enough with those medals, the "welcome" at the CDR, or workplaces, and being up on a mural, depicted as a hero.

One dark day the Soviet tap was shut off and the sports fields dried up, teachers had to buy their own supplies to teach, and doctors, with their coats over their shoulders, pedal miles to their hospitals. The fall was very hard. Our sports, education and public health "stars" had become accustomed to great success. Even so, Cuba is a natural source of great athletes, teachers and doctors - and that is not only due to the Revolution. Whoever doubts this should take a good look at our nation's history over the past 200 years. In sports, pedagogy or medicine we are second to none, taking into account our very limited population and resources.    

One would imagine that the last Caribbean Series sparked much interest on the island. But again, the excessive politicization of the sport —something seemingly so alien to ideology— came back like a boomerang against the players and Cubans who love baseball. A letter called "Stars of Cuban Sports" —which we assume will was not written by any "star" before the game against Mexico— spoke of Fidel and Raúl Castro, a battle-hardened people, turning hardship into victory, of patriotism and convictions.

I do not share the thrill of seeing any Cuban team lose, but after reading this and other disgraceful attempts to link the noble sport to political interests, I do understand those who enjoy watching Cuba lose, because what they really want to see defeated is the Revolution. After all, it is the "revolutionaries" who say that those on the field are not players, but "champions of the Revolution."

However, one can view these defeats, one after another, with sorrow. Those who don the national jersey are often as deprived as any other Cuban. In order to travel, and nab soaps and deodorants at the hotels, they must train hard and win championships, touring under difficult conditions. And, to make matters worse, once they're competing they have "companions" there "protecting" them from "talent thieves" (scouts).

The technical details —pitching, batting, baserunnning— aside, those who followed this latest Caribbean Series saw a baseball team that was not up to the task. But they are the same players who, in a few months, "betray" their country and become stars in the Major Leagues. These players lacked magic, excitement, and the sublime confidence that comes from truly believing in one’s greatness. And that only comes when, despite being trapped in a cage, one believes that he is free. When a man does not live on baseball alone.