In Parque Central along Paseo de Marti in La Habana a special event takes place every day. It has no start or finish time and just happens on its own, day after day. I became aware of this gathering on my previous visit to Havana in 2018. I was enjoying coffee across the street at Hotel Inglaterra when I was jolted to attention by loud, agitated voices and waving arms and foot stomps. I glanced across to Parque Central and saw a group of about 25 men who appeared to be deeply involved in a heated argument. Voices were raised, arms gesticulated wildly, and fingers were pointed menacingly close to chests and faces in an emphatic manner. I was certain that a fight was about to break out. My Cuban friend, sensing my discomfort, explained that the men were simply discussing baseball. I certainly love to discuss baseball reader, but my “discussions” bear no resemblance to what I was witnessing, which was the most boisterous argument that can be imagined. Although no one insulted or physically touched another person, tempers flared, body temperatures, pulse rates, and blood pressures rose, and emotions were full-tilt. My friend introduced me to the group, offering me the opportunity to interact. My Spanish is good enough to converse, but my knowledge of baseball was just barely enough to keep me in the “Hot Corner.” Everyone was pleasant to me and both sides had enough questions to keep the conversation going. But I was clearly out of my league knowledge-wise. Within seconds of my departure the chaos erupted and was once again in full swing. The whole incident piqued my curiosity and I decided to learn more about baseball and become more deeply involved in what I had just witnessed on my next trip to Havana in 2019.
There are many religions practiced in Cuba, but the universal religion is unquestionably baseball. Cuba and baseball have an inseparable history.
To understand baseball in Cuba, some history is needed. The game was first introduced to the island by students returning home from the United States in the 1860s, and it became an instant hit (no pun intended). It has been a passion of Cubans young and old ever since. In the Pueblo Nuevo neighborhood of Matanzas 70 miles east of Havana, you will find Palmar del Junco, the oldest continually operating baseball stadium in the world, and the birthplace of organized baseball in Cuba. It is here in 1874 that the first official baseball game in Cuba was reported by the press. This stadium has been in continuous operation for 144 years! Starting in the 1960s, Cuban baseball players began defecting to the U.S. in search of greater opportunities. More than 200 Cubans have played in the US Major Leagues including many superstars such as José Canseco, Luis Tiant, Rafael Palmeiro, Bert Campaneris and Tony Pérez, to name just a few. In fact, the US is the only country with more players than Cuba in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. This speaks volumes about the baseball talent that this island nation of only 11.5 million inhabitants has brought to our shores. As I write this article around 40 Cuban players are in spring training preparing for the upcoming 2019 Major League Baseball season. Cubans are incredibly proud that so many of their players are good enough to not only participate, but to excel in the US and on the world stage.
One of the undeniable successes of Fidel Castro’s tenure is sports. Along these lines, baseball is king. It is discussed in the home, in restaurants, at school, and on street corners. It is the overwhelming sport of choice for young kids. Perhaps the beauty and popularity of the game lies in its simplicity. All that is needed is a few pieces of cardboard that can be used as bases, a stick or broom handle for a bat, and anything that can resemble a ball. On numerous occasions on the streets of Centro Habana I have witnessed a plastic bottlecap serving this function.
Havana is the epicenter of Cuba’s baseball culture. Their beloved team the Industriales are the New York Yankees of Cuban baseball, and the Estadio Latinoamericano (Latin American Stadium) is the Yankee Stadium of Cuba. A Cuban citizen can attend a Major League game anywhere on the island for 1 Cuban peso. Five cents! Castro believed that sports should be “the right of the people, not the right of the wealthy,” so baseball tickets are affordable to every Cuban, not just the “haves”. I had the privilege of attending a game at the Estadio Latinoamericano in 2018 and I have never experienced anything quite like it. Unlike in the US when the crowd cheers after a play, in Cuba the crowd begins cheering wildly before the game even begins, and the cacophony of voices, trumpets and drums runs nonstop until it ends. A hit or a play at a base sends the fans into hysteria, and when a run scores, the earth shakes from the cheering. Cuban fans enjoy the game with a passion that is not rivaled even in the Major League baseball games in the United States.
What I was witnessing at Parque Central is locally known as La Esquina Caliente – the “Hot Corner.” This is ground zero in Havana for anything and everything to do with baseball. Debates and opinions about players, teams and individual plays are stated emphatically and very emotionally, and there is no lack of individual flair and showmanship. Along with baseball aficionados, many former Cuban Major League players can be found here. Baseball is in their DNA, and the next best thing to playing the game is talking about it.
What appears to be a riot in the making is no more than the daily show at Esquina Caliente. In 2019 I was a return participant at this daily event. Arriving in my Boston Red Sox World Series Champions hat, I was immediately accepted by the group. After all, many of Cuba’s greatest players including the beloved Cuban born superstar pitcher “El Tiante” have played for the Red Sox. I had done my homework before arriving and knew a great deal more about Cuban and US ball than during my debut in 2018. In addition, I came bearing gifts. After scouring the US, I found a baseball card dealer that hand selected 50 baseball cards of Cuban stars currently active on US Major League rosters. As I started gifting these I instantly had many new friends. Requests were coming rapid fire – “Abreu? Cespedes? Morales? Puig? Escobar?” Yes, I had them all and many more. Everybody loved them! It didn’t take long before debates and arguments about each player and team broke out and the show began anew. I was now deeply involved in the action expressing my opinions and point of view, albeit less enthusiastically than my new friends. One young man couldn’t take his eyes off my Boston Red Sox hat. The hat stayed in Cuba.
As the afternoon wanes the group begins to dissipate. Everything ends with pats on the back, handshakes, smiles, and hugs. These men are good friends and clearly have a deep respect and love for one another. An older Hot Corner participant thanked me for being a part of their daily ritual and gave me a smile and warm Cuban hug. Perhaps I had been more emotionally involved in today’s Hot Corner than I realized, as tears were in my eyes. This afternoon was a home run for me in Havana. I popped a blood pressure med as I left, just to sure the whole event hadn’t been too much for me.