Late breaking development: Tampa Bay to Play in Cuba for Obama and Castro March 21, 22, 2016
Some of the best baseball players we’ve never heard of play in Cuba. Our Cuban guide Yohandra (Jo) has told us several times, with pride, that the Cuban baseball team is a perennial winner of the Baseball World Cup. Of the 15 teams that have competed over the years, Cuba has won 15 Gold Medals. The next highest? The USA with 4. Ironically, America introduced Cuba to baseball in the 1860s.
The guest speaker at today’s lunch is Rolando Macías. A little stout now, the 5’10” 74 year-old with the strong shoulders and big biceps still looks like he could throw some heat.
Rolando Macías started to play baseball at 12 years old. At 15, major-league scouts took notice. He played in the Cuban leagues for 15 years, his record was 100 wins and 67 losses between 1958 and 1979. He once won 31 games in a row, pretty remarkable in any country.
An All-Star by any standard, Rolando played in the Pan-American games and the World Cup. “My best pitches were a sinker and a screwball,” our interpreter Jo relays to us.
Rolando Macías Rodrigues was a winner and a coveted prospect that US scouts tried unsuccessfully to land.
At age 18, he was offered a contract by the Cincinnati Reds. In 1967, the New York Giants came calling and in 1969 the Brooklyn Dodgers. He declined them all. Macías retired in 1978, began to mentor young players in 1990, coached a Cuban team in 1997, coached in Italy in 1999 and Venezuela in 2003. In 2006, an automobile accident ended his coaching career. “I still do some advising,” he says, as Jo continues to translate.
Why decline the offers? “In 1958, the contract wasn't good enough. In 1969, I wanted to stay with my wife and children.” In 1967 he said that he felt like part of the revolution and wanted to stay in his home country.
"Cuban teams were the best in the Caribbean - always," Macías says with conviction. He said that after Cuba went under the embargo in 1959, players from the Dominican Republic became more popular. I’m not sure where he gets his information but I believe him when he says, “Fifty players from Cuba may be drafted for USA teams next year.”
To Jo’s extreme distress, the sport of soccer is making inroads in Cuba. The World Cup men’s and women’s championship games have been popular the world over, apparently in Cuba as well.
“Nooo!” she exclaimed when we rolled past athletic fields and saw kids kicking a white soccer ball around. “We have the best baseball teams, we win the World Cup all the time, they should be playing baseball!” In more calm moments, she considers the fact that playing baseball requires gloves, bats, and balls and they all cost money. For soccer, one ball is good for dozens of kids to play with.
(For one young man's cross cultural journey to connect with his family history and to donate baseball equipment to young players see the film HAVANA CURVEBALL by Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider)
In the past month, there’s been talk of American and National League teams coming to play exhibition games in Cuba. If Cuban players are offered contracts in the future, they will be much better than the ones Rolando Macías rejected.
Jo says that Cubans are proud of their athletes like Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes, even though they defected from Cuba.
Yasiel Puig Valdés is a Cuban professional baseball right fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Puig played for the Cuban national baseball team in the 2008 World Junior Baseball Championship, winning a bronze medal. The 25 year-old outfielder made 4.5 million dollars in 2015. In later research, I find that in addition to Puig, who plays for the Dodgers, José Abreu, who plays for the White Sox, and Kendrys Morales, who plays for the Royals, all got their start with Macias. There are 16 Macias protégés currently playing in the minor leagues.
Yoenis Céspedes Milanés is a Cuban professional baseball outfielder who is a free agent. He has played in Major League Baseball for the Oakland Athletics, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, and New York Mets. He made 3.73 million dollars in 2015.
When this happens, the athletic fields will again be alive with kids playing baseball.
Rolando Macias, bottom left of page 2; Rolando's fancy autograph
Rolando Macias's many honors
Parque Central and the famous "Hot Corner"
“See those men around the benches over there,” Jo says. That spot is called ‘The Hot Corner’. They are former baseball players. They hang around the benches and argue baseball all day long.” It is said that this is one of the only places where Cubans can say whatever they want, as long as it’s about baseball.
My guess is that the conversations are going to heat up this year when professional teams from the USA play exhibition games here.
The Estadio Latinoamericao was built in 1946. In 1971 it was renovated, increasing its capacity from 31,000 to 55,000. Like tickets to the ballet, Jo says that ticket prices are affordable for everyone. Outsiders have differing opinions about Cuba's politics but regarding this, I wish tickets for American ballet and sports events were as affordable as they are in Havana.
Photos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr. reporting from Road Scholar trip to Cuba