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 manager—and the manager of the Cuban National Team—has 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 player—he was one of the all-time great Cuban second basemen—as 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.
Other teams have been hurt by defections. Why has Pinar been able to avoid them? Well, first of all, defection is an idiosyncrasy because we are all one. One for all and all for one. It might be a coincidence that players from some provinces leave more than others. We’ve never had problems with betrayal on our team. Pinar Del Rio has always been very united. Other provinces in Cuba . . . but I don’t think that’s the problem. Everyone has their own ideas and they leave. But us, how can I tell you? We don’t impose on our players not to leave. We’re just united. That’s the way we are. What unites us is the flag. The revolution is what we defend.
Are you worried that the trend of defection will continue? Will it affect the younger generation? We’re not telling anyone to stay or leave. They can do what they want. Any human shouldn’t be forced to do something that they don’t want. Each person has their own conviction and freedom to do whatever he wants to do. The ones that love the country don’t leave.
Sports agent Joe Cubas is infamous for his aggressive tactics with Cuban ballplayers. At the World University Games in Buffalo he trailed the Cuban team bus wherever it went and flashed his headlights on and off. He is known to have agents working for him inside Cuba (to scout players and arrange defections), and one of his associates was caught and jailed for 15 years.
What do you think of Joe Cubas? Cubas only thinks to benefit himself. He’s a bad man. He sells the players and he steals from them. All he cares about is himself. He doesn’t care about politics.
What are some of the techniques that Cubas uses? What have you seen him do? I don’t know. He’s got his own strategy. But he doesn’t show his face. Because in Cuba he’s got another mechanism. I don’t know what mechanism it is, and I don’t care. He’s an opportunist. I think the mechanism he uses is very fucked up [“bien pendajo”].
There’s a knock at the door. Urquiola doesn’t even look over. The pounding grows more and more frantic, but Urquiola continues talking. Finally, after a couple of minutes of knocking, he gets up and walks to the door, still in his thong. It’s a man in a white uniform with Coke-bottle glasses, and he wants us to leave. We plead for just two more questions. Urquiola ponders for a moment and then, with a regal wave of his hand, shoos the man with the glasses out of the room and continues the interview.
Do you think the U.S. should use professional players in the Olympics? They are free to do whatever they want. What we’re interested in is to prepare our team and go out and win. We’re not worried about that. We’re going to do everything we can to win.
The man in the glasses returns. There is no appeal. We’re brought into a small, dank room and questioned by an officer from the Ministry of the Interior. After 20 minutes, we’re free to go.
That night at the game, players are selling their hats to foreigners for $10 a pop. What would Alfonso Urquiola have to say about that?
Translation: Alex Angio