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By Tessa Stuart
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Pinar Del Rio, the capital of the westernmost province in Cuba, is renowned for two things: tobacco and baseball. The small but bustling town is home to the famous Partagas cigar factory, and the local baseball team, the best in the cuban league over the last decade, sports tobacco leaves on its hats and uniforms. The team, which includes legendary third basemen Omar Linares and José Contreras, the mean-faced number-one starter on the Cuban National Team, has just returned from a 15-day road trip, their longest of the season and the last before the playoffs (currently, they are playing in the Cuban World Series). It is the afternoon before a night game against the Havana Metropolitanos, and Alfonso Urquiola, the Pinar managerand the manager of the Cuban National Teamhas agreed to an interview. He answers the door to his hotel room in his underpants. But despite his protruding potbelly, short stature (he's five foot three) and balding pate, even in a skimpy yellow thong, he carries an unquestionable air of authority. It is an authority he has earned as a playerhe was one of the all-time great Cuban second basemenas manager of an Olympic Gold Medal winner, and as a patriot whose loyalty has been tested in the hot fires of international competition, with all its opportunities for defection, and is now beyond question. So far beyond question that, unlike most of his players, he can afford to grant an audience to two suspicious-looking Americans hanging around the lobby.
Village Voice: Why has Cuba produced so many talented ballplayers?
Alfonso Urquiola:Here, you start practicing sport at an early age. For the health of the country. And from the masses come the champions. There is not a race problem. Everyone has an opportunity. You don't need to have money to practice. In your country, if you don't have money, you can't improve your talent. And sometimes there are race problems. Here we don't have those problems. Everyone has the right to practice. We fight for our teams from an early age. We teach the athletes to defend their teams. From an early age they learn to respect their teams. Nothing is individual. There are a lot of people who have millions and millions and some don't have bread to eat. I hope that someday everyone understands that because everyone thinks of money. Life is only one. It can end at 40 or 50, or it can end at 10 or 11. What's most important is to have a happy life.
At the stadium in Pinar del Rio, named after slain revolutionary Capitan San Luis, slogans adorn the outfield walls: "No to Obesity and Sedentariness," "We Do More With What We Have and We Do It Well," "The Revolution Begins in the Heart," "Sport Is the Right of the People," "Together We Defend the Revolution."
In Cuba, some players have more privileges than others. Do you think that this is fair?I think that in this country, socially there are two things that are very important: health and education. A person has to have what he deserves. The essential things are given for the right of the people. There are no privileges. They [ballplayers] make a salary like everyone else.
The average salary for a Cuban baseball player is 320 pesos a month, the equivalent of $18. As a point of reference, doctors make 220 pesos a month. On the Pinar del Rio team, star second baseman Yobal Dueñas makes 450 pesos a month. Omar Linares, considered the greatest player over the last decade, and a member of parliament, makes 600 pesos a month.
Are there any players in the U.S. whom you respect as men or do you believe that they are all corrupted?We watch the U.S.A. videos and we can see that they are very good. We respect that and we respect their ideas. We also like that they respect us. We know they make $9 million a year. We don't question them.
Do you think that's a problem with players in the States, that they play for money?Sport is the right of the people. It's health.
When you defeat the U.S. in competition, do you see it as a victory of socialism over capitalism?We only think of our people. We don't think of socialism. Only of competing. Let the winner be the best. We are convinced of what our society is capable of doing. Nothing else matters. We only go out on the field to compete and to win.
When you play the United States, is there extra pressure from the government to win?We always feel the force of the mother country in our people. We think that every medal and trophy we win symbolizes the image of our people. The image of our country is of a fighter. We are a small, poor country, but we have a lot of dignity. Every action that we take, we're thinking of our people. That's our reason for being.
Since 1991, over 40 Cuban baseball players have defected, giving in to the lure of American dollars. Mets shortstop Rey Ordóñez jumped the outfield fence during the '93 World University Games in Buffalo; Adrian Hernandez, a right-handed pitcher recently signed by the Yankees, allegedly borrowed a false passport and left by plane dressed as a woman; and most famously, Yankee hurler Orlando Hernandez risked shark-infested waters in a raft. Many of the teams in the Cuban Major Leagues have had their lineups decimated by this wave of defections. But Pinar del Rio has lost only one player, a rookie pitcher who left last fall. This continuity has made Pinar a perennial contender for the Cuban title.