See You in Cienfuegos: Baseball in Cuba

What is Baseball like in Cuba? Cubadugout.com takes you back to it’s origins and Cienfuegos, cuba in 2012.

“Pito, he is the BEST”

Baseball fans in Cienfuegos
Cienfuegos Cuba baseball stadium at night
5th of September Stadium, Cienfuegos Cuba via Phil Selig

A good friend of mine had been trying to convince me to join him on a Cuba trip for a few years. The big selling feature was the baseball. I had a layman’s understanding of the Cuban culture of baseball. Of course I knew who “El Duque” and Livan were, but figured they were outliers in a decayed baseball infrastructure. I expected it to resemble a Canadian rec softball league.

2012 was drawing to a close I had yet to burn all my vacation time. I gave in and agreed to join for a week at a resort in a small outpost called Cienfuegos. The reviews of the resort were mixed, and in many ways are a direct reflection of the type of vacationer the individual is. Simply put, yes everything is included at a Cuban all inclusive, but inclusive is a word used with creative license.

The reality, I was there for the baseball, the Cristal (or Bucanero) and the bountiful cigars were gravy. Note: if you like gravy or spice or flavour, best to bring your own. The best way to describe the food would be edible-ish.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of the people. How would their english be? How would their knowledge of the outside world be? Does the government really monitor everything? Would I be making myself a target by walking around with fancy camera equipment?

The Cuban educational system guarantees that all Cubans get at least their equivalent of a high school education. English has not been a focus historically. Except for those working in the tourist industry officially or unofficially. They typically pick up enough conversational english to get by.

Customs at the airport was far less intrusive than I anticipated with my gear hardly drawing a second glance. The Cocker Spaniel security dogs far from the perceived image of communist soldiers with machine guns I half expected.

Upon arrival at the beach in Cienfuegos, my travel companion Dave was welcomed by the staff (or who I thought were the staff) as if he were the mayor. I soon found out that there was a crew that supplemented their incomes by bartering with tourists. I learned that these people who would on the surface appear as beggars, would be my greatest resource on Cubans and their lifestyle.

Cuba runs counter to most of my political beliefs. I still struggle with reconciling putting money into the regimes coffers. The state is religion, yet in a country where everyone is “equal”, intelligence, talent and perseverance still shine through. Unfortunately for those intelligent and talented individuals the ceiling is incredibly low. I didn’t pick up on any fierce anti-american sentiment. More fascination as limited and often filtered information comes in from the outside world.

The Cienfuegos beach crew clearly had a pecking order, and each member had for lack of better word their own hustle. The ring leader either by chance or likely by design spoke the best english. At first giving off the vibe of a Cuban used car salesman who could procure what you need; Cigars, rum, trinkets. By the end of the week, I realized there was an actual understanding of customer service.

Policia would occasionally make their presence known, checking the locals for I.D. and putting the run on anyone peddling prostitution. One aspect of the culture I am not a fan of is the prostitution. There were many older male tourists with much younger Cuban girlfriends. If one was so inclined, such a service could be arranged. Politely decline and the conversation doesn’t come up again. You can’t stop it, you can only hope to contain it. Measures have been put into place to crack down though. It is one thing I advise people of in advance in picking a vacation destination.

Very quickly conversations in broken English and Spanish turned to what is a universal language in Cuba…Baseball. There was immense pride in the players who had made it to the majors. Surprising in some ways, as the government treats defectors as persona non grata officially, but in typical Cuban fashion info trickles in. Due to the language barrier or the info barrier the conversation with most didn’t move very far past simple name dropping. Except for one of the Cubans, Paul. His english was excellent and even more impressive was his current knowledge of the baseball climate.

Cienfuegos baseball player Jose Abreu
Jose Abreu w Cienfuegos Elefantes via Phil Selig

The World Baseball Classic would be upcoming in March of 2013. Paul knew everything about all the rosters and the comings and goings of the Major League hot stove. The local team the Cienfuegos Elefantes, I came to learn were as talented as any incarnation they had put on the field, spearheaded by “Pito” Abreu. Simply mentioning his name sent the small assembly into an uproar…“Pito, he is the best”, animale, frequently followed by the pantomime of hitting a home run, or JONRON in colloquial Cuban.

The Cuban National Series is comprised of 16 teams. Each province is represented with a team in the major city. Historically there has been very little player movement. Subsequent years have seen changes to the league format and player dispersals for the 2nd half of the season. Players would spend their entire career with the team from their home province. The exception was when it was deemed appropriate for the best players to be sent to the big bad Industriales of Havana. Because of this they are likened as the Yankees of Cuban baseball.

Armed with the scouting report on Jose “Pito” Abreu, I had to see what the buzz was about. It is hard to make an assessment of the Cuban leagues’s talent level overall. A small island supporting 16 “professional” teams is impressive. But transcendent talent doesn’t grow on trees, even palm trees. I was also informed to keep an eye on a former Elefante, Yasiel Puig who had just signed with the Dodgers. Let’s just say I wish I had heeded this advice in my fantasy draft that year.

Another Cienfuegos player that I saw play that has since generated buzz by defecting. Yoan Moncada signed a lucrative deal with the Red Sox. He has since been traded to the White Sox and has a bright future at third base in the Windy City. For what it’s worth his name didn’t come up in conversations as a top player. Anecdotally I had to review my photos to even take note of him in the game. Some of this might be due to his youth (19 years of age) when I saw him and the fact that in Cuba you have to earn your way into a full-time role. With this knowledge I was disappointed that MLB teams weren’t knocking down my door to get at my scouting reports.

The comparatively short ride from the resort (most Cuban resorts are isolated from urban centres) to Cienfuegos and Estadio Cinquo Septembiere gave a quick glimpse into the dichotomy of Cuban architecture. Different parts of the island exhibit influences from discovering factions.

I love the Artifacts, specifically American Cars left behind from mass affluent exodus during the revolution. You see Beautiful exhibits of architecture crafted from exquisite stone and marble showing their age and decay. Next to it are dilapidated buildings that could serve as a sound stage for the sequel to BlackHawk Down.

5th of September stadium is amazingly underwhelming and overwhelming at the same time.

This is an actual stadium, sort of. Impressive in the size of the footprint of the structure, capacity of over 30,000, well lit, no video board but a functioning scoreboard. That is where the comparisons to North American stadiums ends. Firstly, scheduling (although easier to track now thanks to www.baseballdecuba.com) is more art than science. Game day is typically when you find out if it is a day or night game. There are no advance ticket sales, and from experience (both attending with and without locals) you are best to attend with a local.

Locals pay the equivalent of $0.20 where tourists pay closer to $3.00, not that that will break the bank. You will likely get shuffled around from gate to gate, maybe they could market it as a free stadium tour. One perk of attending as a tourist is you do get prime seating. An actual chair vs the cement slabs that comprise the general seating. The view of the bowels of the stadium through the hole in the cement was another bonus. The best advice I can give, use the washroom before leaving your resort or hotel, TRUST me on this one.

Cuban TV typically broadcasts a select afternoon and night game each day. My first Cuban baseball game would be under the bright lights and viewing eyes of the whole island. The stadium was a buzz, and the crowd slowly made their way in. It was hard to gauge the size of the crowd, it would appear close to a sell out.

The majority of fans made their away around the main concourse for a lot of the game. This was clearly the place to be seen for single teenage boys and girls. In ways it resembled a North American Jr. High School dance, girls on this side, boys on the other side. An impromptu rhythm section provided Cuban musica and flair. 9 innings of pounding drums, cowbells and flutes wasn’t as grating as I would have suspected, I walked away impressed with the sustained energy.

#79 “Pito” Abreu stood out literally and figuratively. He was massive compared to the rest of the players and in terms of poise and balance at the plate appeared to have “it”. Projecting performance from american Minor Leagues to the Majors is a fools errand. Projecting Cubans, even more so.

Abreu was putting up video game numbers. Because of this and his impressive physical stature, right away I knew this guy could have an impact in the majors. His age, 27, pushed him out of the prospect window. The fact that he would have to defect, leaving his family and life behind would tend to indicate he would be with The Elefantes for quite some time. This assessment was of course wrong. Much more on Abreu in the future, if you don’t already know his story.

The game was different than any baseball experience I have been a part of. No fancy sound system, no advertisements in the stadium, no beer…for sale, note that doesn’t mean no beer, you just have to plan ahead and be discreet. No hot dogs, but incredible electricity and passion. A feeling of purity, that these players are playing for pride, of city, province, club and country. I was hooked, and as it turns out my timing was just on the fringe of what would become an influx of impact Cuban players to the majors.

This would be my first Cuban baseball sojourn but not my last. Hopefully I’ll See You in Cienfuegos.

Phil Selig

I am Phil. I write things