Sábado, 20 de Julio de 2019
Última actualización: 02:33 CEST

Cuba's Little Leagues: Hardly Free

A little league game. (ISLA LOCAL)
Uniforms for children. (B. L. CABRERA)

It is 4:30 in the afternoon on an average day of the week on the baseball diamond of the old Vedado Tennis Club, today the José A. Echeverría social center, in Havana. A group of small children practice hard under the sun, learning the basics of this sport and preparing for provincial competition.

Around them a swarm of relatives shout, bark orders, correct mistakes, and some jog out onto the field to help the coaches, who at times cannot control the rowdy six and seven year olds.

Passers-by stop to check out the show and, from behind the fence that separates them, delight at watching how the kids catch balls, or hit them hard, wondering how it is possible to be so good so young.

Throughout the country the boys are organized into categories, participating in regional and national competitions forming part of a pyramid that is to guarantee their development as athletes. On the grass, there are balls and aluminum bats of different sizes and colors. Each player wears his uniform and has a glove.

For many of those bystanders who follow their paths, with a smile, the image reflects the efforts made by the country, amidst so many economic problems, to keep the national sport alive.

It will be difficult for them to understand how, despite this idyllic idea, Cuban sport is actually in crisis, and baseball has lost ground in international competitions, and in kids' tastes.

Carlos Mayón, a coach with 27 years of experience, is in charge of training, and dispels that romantic notion.

"The resources here are very scarce, nothing reaches us. They might send us a pair of gloves, but no balls. Everything here is thanks to the efforts of the players' parents, and we are talking about everything: the gear, the care of the field, etc. Support from our leaders is scant," he explains to DIARIO DE CUBA.

"Another thing that hurts us is that our municipality doesn't have its own baseball field, that is, belonging to the INDER (Cuban Institute for Sports, P.E. and Recreation), or to the town. This land where we are now belongs to the Union of Young Communists (UJC) and, by agreement, we can use it, but never on weekends, which is when we need it the most, to play against other teams. No category has its own."

During provincial competition "we have to travel to other areas to compete. We don't have any transportation. Again, the parents take care of it, but someone has to pay for it. The INDER does not have those resources, or at least they don't end up here," he says with resignation.

I hear shouts in the distance and I see some parents grouped around a couple that has just arrived carrying large suitcases. We interrupt our conversation and approach the group. From the bags they start to take out snazzy baseball uniforms with the names of the children on their backs. "These are for competition," the coach tells me.

One of the mothers checking out the merchandise clarifies that the uniform "costs 40 dollars (about 1,000 Cuban pesos)".

"The expenses for our children to play baseball are high. We have to buy the glove, the shoes, the bat, the balls, the transportation to competitions, the snacks ... Unfortunately, the coaches do not have the resources here, so we have to buy everything, so that they can train and become players in the future. The INDER doesn't give us a thing," she adds.

The family members see the presence of a journalist as an opportunity to voice their dissatisfaction.

"I bought a glove for my kid the other day and it cost me 25 dollars (about 625 Cuban pesos). If I weren't able to afford it, the kid wouldn't be able to play ball, of course," says another mother.

"Here children show up without gloves, and others lend them one. We have seen it right here, but I also know many children who have stopped coming because their parents cannot afford the expenses. It's very sad, those children really suffer," laments a mother who introduces herself as the team's representative.

"This is a great sacrifice, because they are our children and we know that they like baseball. Our national sport is being lost, and soccer is winning the battle. Something must be done to rescue our baseball," says another who has two children in the same league.

Doing the math, and taking into account that the average monthly salary on the Island does not exceed $30 a month, it is easy to imagine the sacrifices that parents must make to keep those children playing baseball.

"The kids don't actually have to wear a uniform, but the parents always try to get them one," says the coach. "Sometimes there are parents that do not have the necessary resources and, if they stick around, we look for a way to solve it, money is collected, or a solution is sought."

"Baseball in our country has become an extremely expensive sport to play. If a kid's parents can't afford it, but he has talent, we strive to keep him playing. We, as coaches, do not turn our backs. They are all treated the same. What happens is that there are children whose parents, seeing all these expenses, out of shame or embarrassment, simply do not bring them anymore," he says sadly.

For the coaches on the baseball fields the situation is also precarious.

"I'm a graduate, and earn 570 Cuban pesos per month. Younger coaches earn less. Many lose interest after doing their two-year social service. There is a lot of work in these practices, and they end up losing their love for this. The sacrifice made by those who stay is great, because there are no resources. It is very hard ... you have to love this sport too much, because there are too many difficulties to overcome."

The solution to this problem does not seem easy to find under the current conditions and given the passivity of the country's leaders.

"The country is not in a position to maintain this, we have to look for solutions," says Mayón. "I don't know whether the foreign companies that are in Cuba might finance the sport, because, really, every year that goes by there are fewer and fewer resources available, and we are slipping from the top spots in the world. At this rate, the results are going to get worse and worse."

Carlos Mayón also says that schools do not give players permission to get out of school early and make the most of their practices. When the seasons change and it gets dark earlier, you can hardly practice on the field.

The other coach who helps him calls him over to divide up the work by defensive areas. We say goodbye and I walk away, overcome by doubt and pessimism, and amazed at how, despite everything, the island continues to turn out quality players.