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HAVANAIt was better late than never for the Yankees last week when José Contreras made his first start in the Bronx after sitting out much of the season with a strained shoulder. The Yankees beat Baltimore 7-0, and Contreras struck out five with an old-fashioned forkball. But it was also a victory for Contreras's fellow Cubans back home.
On any given day, Cuban stat-heads mill about the José Martí statue in Havana's Parque Central, blind to the square's Grand Theatre, the 128-year-old Inglaterra Hotel, or the Plaza, where Babe Ruth stayed in 1920 while barnstorming. Their focus is 21st-century baseball. For them, Contreras's success is theirs, tooa gauge of the state of their country's unofficial national sport. They have nothing to do with Contreras's $32 million contract, but they are, just as they were with Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and his brother Livan, entirely invested in a Cuban pitcher's future.
Many of the aggressive, chattering mass of stat-heads belong to the Peña, Cuba's answer to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), but membership isn't required. American tourists are welcomed at the esquina caliente, or hot corner, because they may bring the most valuable commodity: news. A visit earlier this season by one group of Americans brought the Sporting News, week-old sports pages, and Street & Smith's, all of which the stat-heads eagerly gobbled up. "It was like a feeding frenzy," said Kit Krieger, a former Vancouver Mounties pitcher and president of Cubaball Tours.
Because of the U.S.'s 40-year trade embargo with Cuba, a typical Cuban doesn't exactly have open access to sports news, so baseball fanatics glean information any way they can. "I heard Contreras went down to Triple A," said a gangly stat-head named Emilio, after hearing reports of Contreras's spring-training struggles. But Leonel, a burly, soft-spoken man, was completely in the dark about his favorite defector. "What happened to El Duque? What's going on?" he asked, not knowing that the ex-Yank had been traded to the Expos.
These days, fleeing Cuba for the Show is seen less as a political act than as simply the desire to play good ball. It's a cliché to marvel at Cuba's crumbling colonial mansions and rusting shells of once brilliant classic cars. Cuban baseball holds an almost charming purity, defined by what it lacks. There's no DiamondVision blaring ads and bloopers. No team relocation. No trading. No expansion, contraction, labor disputes. No box seats or luxury boxes. And certainly no dancing grounds-crews sponsored by Snapple.
The absence of big-business commercialism might make it easy for Americans to romanticize the feel of Cuban ball. In truth, resources are so low in Fidel Castro's regime that in the country's national league, for example, a batter will hand his helmet, glove, and bat to the next batter (reducing resale value of a star player's memorabilia, at the very least). Dugouts with cracked paint and ancient water coolers sometimes double as locker rooms. It's not unheard of for a mangy dog to wander onto the field for a bathroom break in the sixth inning, or for a ball boy to surreptitiously resell game-worn jerseys and hats to tourists.
Still, the crowd loves its sport. The local Peña chapter hangs its hand-painted banners over a dugout, and the crowd has the demographics of a New York City buswomen, men, young, old, and really old. And all are enthusiastic for the game. A typical stadium has rickety folding chairs and concrete steps for seats. At a dollar a pop, beer is too pricey for an average Cuban, who earns the equivalent of about $15 a month, but a peso will buy a shot of espresso in a waxed-paper cup folded origami-like, or a handful of peanuts in a paper cone.
Despite its rawness, Cuba still produces world-class pitchers. And back at the Parque Central, fans weren't being too ideologically correct about what happens to them. They supported Contreras's defection. "They weren't taking care of him here," said a Peña member named Raúl, "so he left." Contreras is looking good now to New Yorkers, but to the Peña, he's always looked great. After all, he left Cuba, but he didn't leave the mound.