14ymedio, Carlos A. Torres Fleites, Santa Clara, 12 February 2018 — The Natilla Jiménez baseball field in Santa Clara, known as El Sandinito, is filled on the weekends with children who share a dream: to become part of the provincial team, later of Cuba’s national team and, perhaps, finish in the Big Leagues in the United States. Since the State has ended its policies that support sports, families have taken on the task of providing their children with the necessary resources to achieve that long-sought fame.
Natural talent and hard training are not enough for the development of an elite athlete. Achieving success in the sport of balls-and-strikes requires starting at an early age and spending a lot of time practicing with the right equipment to avoid injuries.
The uniform, the specific shoes, a bat, a glove, the protective masks and kneepads for the catchers, make up a basic set that can run to between 60 and 100 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC — roughly the same in dollars), an amount that is not always available to all families. Years after promoting sports as a right of the people, the situation today means that only those with more resources can afford this arsenal of materials, often bought on the black market.
On weeknight evenings, after school, dozens of parents meet at El Sandinito, where some 30 children under the age of twelve practice ball. The social differences that the Revolution wanted to eliminate are obvious just looking across the field to see what families have been able to do to make their son resemble, as much as possible, a professional baseball player.
The boys, under the expert eye of two coaches, practice in the Special Area, one of the eight that exists in the city of Santa Clara and is supervised by the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER). The state entity barely takes care of the most basic infrastructure. With the economic crisis that the country is going through, the government is finding it very difficult in keeping sports going.
The overgrown grass, the deterioration of the bleachers and the poor state of the sanitary services dent the enthusiasm, but both children and parents seem willing to overcome such inconveniences.
“You have to come as if it were for an interprovincial trip, but you have to make these sacrifices so that the child grows in discipline and in physical form,” says a grandmother, protecting herself from the sun with an umbrella, who does not miss a practice. “I had to learn all about baseball, because before I didn’t know anything,” she says with amusement.
The group of parents applauds when one of the children connects a hit and runs with his impeccable uniform to first base. “That’s my son,” says a man with dark glasses, grinning from ear to ear. “I’ve asked him not to slide into base too hard, so his pants will last longer,” he confesses.
Pedro Fuentes, one of the two coaches at El Sandinito, sweats oceans while moving from one side of the field to the other. The whistle in his mouth stops some and makes others run. The ideal age to start practicing baseball is seven, he tells 14ymedio. Enrollment in the program is open throughout the year and only requires that the child be accompanied by one of their parents.
Sometimes they allow older children to enter “who have a good body type and show interest in baseball,” he adds, referring to the youth’s temperament. “We can’t accept all those who approach us due to lack of capacity and the needed equipment and fields, so we have to make a selection.”
In the programs in which the teacher works, the students learn the general foundations of the sport, such how to move around and place themselves on the field. They are also taught how to use the equipment of the game.
Fuentes is critical of how little attention they receive from the authorities. He thinks that to achieve good results in national and international baseball, it is necessary to broaden the fundraising at the base and “strengthen the lower categories.” Without the support of state agencies something like that becomes an almost impossible task.
In recent years, Cuba has experienced a significant decrease in competitive results in all baseball competitions. Fuentes regrets that Cuba is only earning medals on occasion and at a level more or less limited to lower level competitions.
Private management of the fields is not allowed, although there has been no lack of community initiatives to transform vacant lots or plazas to create ball fields. “Champions are not made by happenstance,” says a Havana sports methodologist consulted by this newspaper.
“The situation is complicated because along with the lack of resources we have vandalism,” says the professional, who preferred anonymity. He also criticized the ’diversion’ (i.e. theft) of sports equipment for resale on the black market.
“It’s like having a broken pipeline. Everything that is invested or every product that is delivered is not going to make it into the hands of those who need it most, but rather it ends up with those who turn it into a private business,” he says.
The wound is still open with regards to the performance of the Granma team in the Caribbean Series in Guadalajara, Mexico, where the Cuban squad was in third place, and at Sandinito parents and coaches exchange views on the current state of national baseball.
Fuentes thinks that “the fall” in the earning of medals is due to the shortage of trainers willing to transmit their knowledge to new generations of players for such low salaries, between 300 and 400 Cuban pesos (CUP — $12-$16 US) per month according to the category they are working in.
Pelayo, one of the parents who accompanies his son to each training in Santa Clara, considers that children “move forward and do not abandon practice when they have the interest of teachers, in addition to the support and enthusiasm of their family.”
Some small private businesses have seen in this need a niche market, as is the case of Chueco, a small producer of baseball uniforms that also helps organize children’s tournaments.
The uniforms made by Chueco “are high quality and resemble those of the Major Leagues,” says Romelio, grandfather of a player of the Los Halcones de Guanabacoa team in the Sub 12 category. The team uniform is a combination of blue and orange made by local entrepreneurs and sells for 30 CUC.
In general, a championship between municipalities can cost “each family about 50 CUC, without counting the clothing and equipment, only in transportation, food and gifts,” he says.
In Santa Clara, Pelayo confirms that assessment. “The bats, gloves and baseball uniforms the children have is because they have been bought by their relatives, in the vast majority of cases, abroad.”
On the black market, an official baseball glove can exceed 50 CUC, more than double what a coach of any sport on the island earns in a month’s work, “a real embarrassment,” according to Pelayo.
In the children’s categories a solid rubber ball (known as Kenko) is used, which differs from those used in the higher categories, and whose value is around 12 CUC each on the black market. When there is a long ball, the parents applaud but also watch the ball with concern, for fear that it will be damaged.
“If this continues, baseball practice will become a luxury that only the children of families with more economic resources can afford,” laments Pelayo.
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