Havana Celebrates for its Ball Players

This April 1st, we forgot about the lack of food and the tragedy of living without a future.  We set aside our empty refrigerators, as well as all the anachronistic internal politics that don’t work. We ignored the bad taste left by an inoperative government, and the empty wallets.

It is Thursday of Holy Week, but Havana is partying. Yes. This Havana of columns and porches, of the Prado and the Malecon, is enjoying the victory of its baseball team, which was just crowned National Champion.

Baseball, a sport introduced during the 19th century by Cubans residing in the U.S., is a passion in Cuba.  It’s play became widespread and resonates deep within the country.  Before 1959, when Fidel Castro took power, a series of winter championship games, which were followed by millions of fans from all the provinces, would take place throughout the island.

These games were made up for four teams:  Almendares, Havana, Marianao, and Cienfuegos.  The majority of the people would root for the Almendares “Blues” or the Red Lions of Havana.  Huge stars who later became popular in the US, such as Orestes (“Minnie”) Minoso, Camilo Pascual, Luis Tiant, and Adolfo Luque, debuted in our very own local classics.

The oldest fans can remember that final match in 1944 between the eternal rivals, Havana and Almendares, won by the latter when no one believed it possible. Industriales, the new lions of Havana, now wear blue.  And in the 2010 finals, the Blues of the capital and the Oranges of Villa Clara brought back the same drama from that 1944 series.

Industriales are not just the icons of the capital, but also of the entire country.  Since 1959 they have won the most, with 12 titles.  It is a team that is either hated or loved, but never unnoticed.

It is also the team that, without a doubt, has lost the most players, thanks to the ceaseless trickling of desertions.  Players who leave the island, tired of their worker salaries and full of dreams of becoming millionaires in the best baseball in the world, the Major Leagues in the United States.

Industriales were three-time champions with the New York Yankees’ pitcher Orlando “Duque” Hernandez, a great among the greats. Their ranks also yielded some who showed promise, and now actually shine in the majors, like Yunel Escobar with the Atlanta Braves and Kendry Morales with the California Angels.

In the last twenty years, Industriales have lost more than 40 first-rate players. All decided to go to the United States, the baseball world’s mecca. Despite this, those who have remained are always in the mix. From 2003 to date, they have won four crowns. First with manager Rey Vicente Anglada and now with Germán “The Wizard” Mesa.

Germán Mesa is considered the best shortstop of all time in Cuban baseball. He was removed in the late 90s, per government decree by Fidel Castro, who accused him of being part of a network of players and major league scouts who instigated the defection of native players. For three years “The Wizard” was absent from the baseball fields. Until he was redeemed in 1999 and authorized to play again.

In this championship, Industriales’s chances of taking the title were slim. In 2009, the ninth pair of their most outstanding pitchers left: Yadel Marti and Dennis Suarez, who were central to the team. If to them you add the whole litter of its members who have defected since 2003, Industriales had no chance of winning.

The year before, they had occupied 12th place. They didn’t even qualify for the post-season playoffs. It was expected that this campaign would straggle into mediocrity. True, they had been reinforced with young talent, but it was felt that they were still very green.

Hence the great merit of this team. They were never favored in the final three games, against Sancti Spiritus, Havana, and Villa Clara. But the men did it and defeated the Spiritus, the best team of the season, Havana, with the best pitching, and then the Orange of Villa Clara, the most consistent in the last dozen years.

The final best-of-seven-games with Villa Clara were full of suspense. They were a drama. And are regarded as the most tense and hotly contested games since 1959.

When after two in the morning, Industriales won the crown in Augusto Cesar Sandino Stadium in Santa Clara, at that hour, 300 kilometers away in the capital, they beat the drums and, in the absence of cava or champagne, uncorked bottles of rum. Hundreds of fans lined the streets between rumba steps and mouthfuls of rum, to celebrate the title of their Blues.

In swirling lines they marched to Central Park – the Havana version of La Cibeles – and until well into the morning they celebrated the win. About 3 p.m., in convertible cars, the Industriales players made their entry into the capital, cheered by hundreds of thousands of fans who lined the route of the procession.

Cars horns honked furiously all day long, and many people didn’t go to work. People were exulting on the rock in Central Park, the same one often visited by Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the political prisoner who died after a prolonged hunger strike on February 23rd, and a rabid lover of baseball.

In this Holy Week, Havana is celebrating. People have brought large speakers to the balconies, and with loud reggaeton music they revel in the victory. I’m also out in it. Since I was three years old – and I’m now 44 – I’ve been a fan of Industriales.

I have pity for Guillermo “Coco” Fariñas, the dissident journalist and psychologist on a hunger strike in Santa Clara, a follower of the Oranges. According to his friends, was glued to the TV until late in the game. I feel for you, Coco.

Iván García

Translated by Raul G. and Tomás A.