Baseball: Diamond passion of Castro's Cuba

The big money is made in America, but the game is still followed with revolutionary zeal by Fidel's followers
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The Independent Online
THE CUBAN people are celebrating two anniversaries this week. Different anniversaries for different Cubans. For some, it marks the 40th birthday of the Revolution. For others, it's a year since Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez joined the New York Yankees.

In the early hours of New Year's Day, 1959, Fulgencio Batista slipped away from a party at the presidential palace and took a plane to exile, leaving the island to Fidel Castro's Rebel Army. This time last year Orlando Hernandez was sitting on an uninhabited rock 40 miles from the Cuban shore, waiting to be picked up by the US coastguard. Hernandez had left a pounds 6- a-month job as a nurse in a Havana psychiatric hospital; within days he would be signing a contract worth pounds 4.5m over four years.

Those figures say a lot about Cuba, about the United States, about sport and business, and about human values. As someone points out during A Diamond In The Rough, a documentary made by the BBC2 Arena team and to be shown tonight, it would have taken Hernandez 60,000 years to earn in Cuba the sort of money he's now making in the US.

But when El Duque came off the bench to complete the Yankees' clean-sweep victory in the 1998 World Series, it was hard not to imagine Fidel Castro, back in Havana, standing up to cheer. Just as he might have done when Orlando's half-brother Livan, who defected two years earlier, repaid the worship of Miami's community of exiles by pitching the Florida Marlins to the title in 1997. For if there's one thing Fidel likes as much as a sheet of paper showing an increase in the sugarcane crop, it's a game of baseball. And when he sees the Hernandez brothers on television, or any of the Cuban players who have defected to the US in recent years, perhaps he thinks back to his own youth, to his days at university in the early 50s, when he pitched for the School of Law baseball team and met Joe Cambria.

A lot of young Cuban ball-players met Cambria, a scout for the Washington Senators, in those days. During the Second World War, when military service deprived big clubs of many players, Cambria started visiting Cuba. Over the next 25 years he signed more than 400 Cubans - at first only men of Spanish ancestry but later, after Branch Rickey had smashed the game's colour bar by bringing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, also players of African origin.

In fact, a Cuban could have taken Robinson's place in history. Looking for the right man for his purpose, Rickey approached Silvio Garcia, a Cuban pitcher playing in the US Negro League. Trying to discover whether Garcia had the necessary temperament, Rickey asked him: "What would you do if a white American slapped your face?" Garcia's response - "I kill him" - was not what the Dodgers' president had in mind.

The young Fidel Castro Ruz had his own reasons for refusing the siren call. "I think if Fidel had signed for the major leagues, as he has triumphed in everything else, he would have triumphed in that, too," is the loyal testimony of Eddy Martin, Cuba's veteran baseball commentator. But Castro certainly never lost his passion for the game.

Six weeks before the fall of Havana, he and 230 guerrilla soldiers marched on the small town of Guisa, where a garrison defended the central highway. After a 10-day action, the government forces withdrew. "As his men searched the town, Castro sat on a box, conversing about baseball with townspeople and eating fish with his fingers," a biographer wrote. "He had hoped to learn why Milwaukee's Carleton Willey, who had received the Rookie of the Year award of Sporting News, pitched only one inning in the World Series, while the veteran Warren Spahn started three games. With Willey on the mound in the seventh and deciding game, he said, the Braves might have defeated the Yanquis."

Baseball came to Cuba in the 1860s, and the local history of the game quickly became interlinked with the struggles against imperialism and repression. Emilio Saburin, who founded the first Cuban baseball league in 1878, was arrested as part of a crackdown on the game in the 1890s when the Spanish colonial authorities discovered that profits from the league were being used to finance Jose Marti's independence movement. Sabourin was shipped off to a Spanish jail in Morocco, where he died of pneumonia.

Half a century later, Martin Dihigo, a black player who became an All Star in four countries, made a modest financial contribution to the nascent revolutionary movement during a chance meeting with Che Guevara in a Mexico City restaurant. During their six-year campaign, the Rebel Army soldiers relaxed by listening to radio commentaries. And in 1955, during a ban on public meetings imposed by the nervous Batista government, student protesters carried their banners on to the field in the middle of a nationally televised game, and were beaten up by armed guards in full of the cameras.

Even after the revolution, Cuban clubs continued to compete with Yanqui teams in the International League. In 1959 the Sugar Kings beat the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association to take the 1959 minor-league World Series, in the presence of Fidel and El Che - who, being from Argentina, much preferred football. Three years later, the US economic and social blockade put an end to such meetings.

"Baseball helps in cutting cane, and cutting cane helps in baseball," Fidel once said, talking to reporters while wielding a machete during a morale-boosting visit to a state sugarcane farm in 1966. He had just been given the news of the defection of his chief sugar expert during a trade mission to Madrid. And by that time, the economic boycott had deprived Cubans of a supply of sports equipment, including baseballs. A small factory was opened in Havana, initially using the mechanism of an old gramophone to wind the balls' cores. Today the technology is a little more advanced, but the casings are still hand-stitched with the sort of care otherwise devoted to the rolling of cigars.

To pro-revolutionary Cubans, the baseball diamond offers their only chance for public humiliation of the oppressor. Victory in the 1969 amateur world championships held in the Dominican Republic was seen as revenge for the American invasion of that country four years earlier. "It was a way for the Dominican people and the Cuban people to demonstrate against what had happened," Eddy Martin says. "Not against the players, who couldn't be held responsible for the actions of their government, but against the inter- ference of the United States in our country." And you had to be in Barcelona's Estadio do Beisbol on an August day in 1992 to appreciate the joy of the Cubans in defeating the US team in the semi-finals of the Olympic tournament.

There are, of course, many sides to an argument which divides not only political and ideological enemies but, increasingly, the generations. Livan and Orlando Hernandez are the sons of another great player, Arnaldo Hernandez of Havana's Industriales club, the first to be called El Duque. But when Livan defected, Orlando was harassed by the authorities and, by his own account, told that he would never play baseball in Cuba again. Now, driving his 4x4 around the streets of Manhattan, with all the food he can eat, more money than he can spend, and the memory of a tickertape parade to savour, he believes he has found freedom.

But Omar Linares of Pinar Del Rio, whose eight home runs in Atlanta helped Cuba to a second Olympic gold medal, and who has turned down numerous offers to defect, stands at the other side of the philosophical divide between loyalty to the state and loyalty to self. "We play for the people," he says. "Everything I've done and all that I am, I owe to this nation. We give our all for eight, 10 million Cubans without receiving large sums of money - just the opposite. I've been approached by a great many people. They come with the aim of offering you money to play in a team. It doesn't have to be any team in particular."

n A Diamond In The Rough can be seen on BBC2 today at 8.15pm.