Posted on 10 May 2011.
Originally posted at BaseballJourneyman.com
In 1980, writer Randy Wayne White was in Mariel Harbor, Cuba to help a friend retrieve his family during the MarielBoatlift. After the week plus that he spent under armed control in the harbor by the Cuban military, he swore he would never go back.
Twenty years later, White set out for Cuba to try and resurrect a children’s baseball league founded by Ernest Hemingway many years before. He set out to find a team to go with him to bring equipment to the kids where Hemingway taught the game years prior. His team would include a priest, his son, and along with many others two former Major Leaguers in Bill “Spaceman” Lee and Jon Warden.
It took them a year to get the people and equipment in place, not to mention talking the American government into allowing them to go. But with equipment in hand, they set off for Cuba and what took place showed how great this game is.
The original plan was to go to the same area where Hemingway lived to seek out the old players from Hemingway’s Gigi Stars team and try to resurrect the children’s league. Things don’t always go as planned, especially when you are in a place like Cuba.
After first arriving, they were denied by the Cuban government help in finding the former players and were told they couldn’t even play a pick up game. So White, with names of the old players in hand, wonders the streets looking for them and finds some of them. They are greeted by smiles and hugs from Hemingway’s former players who are eager to talk about playing baseball with the great writer. They meet with several of the team members and agree to return in 5 days with the equipment to give to the children and hopefully restart the league.
Back in 1980, White had heard about a pitcher nicknamed “the man with 100 moves” and he was anxious to see if he could find him, so he set off to see. Finding the area where he lives, White was told he was not home but to come back the next day. Little did he know that would not be necessary as Perfidio (sp?) Perez would come find him after hearing they were looking for him.
Throughout their trip, White and the guys saw kids playing baseball everywhere with homemade bats and balls. The bats would be hand carved out of tree limbs and they would fashion balls out of anything they could find. It was amazing to see the love of the game there. They don’t have cable TV, Nintendo, and things like malls that take up so much of the attention of kids in other parts of the world. Seeing the looks on the kid’s faces when the guys would stop their bus and hand out equipment was priceless. Holding a real ball or bat in their hands their smiles would light up the night sky.
Twice White, Lee, Warden, and the rest of the guys play pick up games. They were usually out manned but everyone involved always had a great time. After every game a party would spring up and dancing, eating, and drinking would spring about. Just the simple happiness seen in the people of the land was infectious. But it wasn’t always the case.
In downtown Havana things were quite different. There people were much more aware of the police presence around them and were quick to quiz the Americans if they were some sort of police. On one hand you can see the passion for the game and the pure simple joy they get out of it, and the next minute you can see the oppression and fear that these people experience on a daily basis.
Perhaps the best example was from the former players themselves. After returning to hand out the equipment, they were told there would be no game and no party. The joy in their faces had gone and they were very serious. It turns out that higher ups had deemed it wasn’t going to happen and they had no choice but to follow suit. A compromise was soon had that there would be no game, but there would be a party.
The government had allowed the guys to play one sanctioned exhibition game with the Cuban Over 40 team. These were all ex-players who could still play a bit. While the game highlights and banter were fun to watch, the real excitement came after the game. This is when a government official came with armed soldiers to take all the equipment they had brought. They took everything from the bus that they had on them. Luckily they were smart enough to pay someone to hide a lot of the equipment for the kids so when it came time to give it out it was there.
I really enjoyed this film. Bill Lee is always fun to watch. He is a great ambassador for the game and always funny. I was not familiar with Jon Warden but the grew on me very quickly. He is a fun-loving and funny guy who just wants to make people smile. But the best part of the film was the kids. They benefited in the form of equipment and were very excited anytime a hat, ball, glove, or bat was handed out. It’s a shame that they are unable to get the proper equipment needed for the game. There is, and always has been, a wealth of talent there.
I highly recommend anyone who is a baseball fan to watch this film.
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