From my birth in 1965 until 1977, I lived in Romay, between Monte and Zequeira streets, less than ten blocks from Latinoamericano Stadium. I was 3 years old when my grandmother Carmen, a rare woman of peasant heritage who was a baseball fan, took me to the stadium two or three times a week. Admission was free, otherwise our modest family budget would not have allowed us to go that often.
We went after lunch, so my grandmother just had to spend on coffee (she was a chain-smoker) and bread with croquette for me. All that cost 50 cents or less. On very special days she bought me a pizza. A native of Sancti Spiritus, she rooted for any Villa Clara team. I, a purebred Havanan, was always for the Industriales.
During the 70s, I sometimes went with Jorge Luis Piloto, then a neighbor in our building, today a renowned composer who has lived in Miami since 1980. He was born in Cárdenas, but when he moved to Havana he became a fan of the Blue Nine. I have not asked Jorge his opinion about the visit of ten Industriales to Miami, but I have asked ten friends, neighbors, and acquaintances.
It seems like a very good idea to everyone to mark the 50th anniversary of the debut of Industriales in the national classics, and now the immigration reform put into effect last February, with the old legends of the Blue Nine being allowed to travel to Florida, for fellowship and to make friendly stops.
Beyond the worn slogan that “we are one people,” if anything unites Cubans on both sides it is the passion for baseball. But the ten people I spoke to in person or by phone disagree on one point: the commemoration should have started in Havana in Cerro Stadium, home of the Industriales. And then moved to Miami.
They say, and I agree with them, that Latino Stadium would be filled to overflowing with fans of Industriales and other teams and provinces, to see the Duque Hernández, Agustín Marquetti, or René Arocha. They would also have appreciated the participation of Yadel Martí, Yunel Escobar and, of course, Kendrys Morales.
Although the media on the island have overlooked the visit to “the cradle of the mafia” by the players from the flagship team of the Cuban capital, the people manage to stay on top of every detail. Like the pall that fell on Miami with the presence of Javier Méndez and Juan Padilla. They even knew the answer that Padilla gave to a Herald reporter — that he had not come there to “talk about it.”
“It” was the beating that he, Méndez, and the Villa Clara catcher Ariel Pestano, inflicted on Diego Tintorero, a Cuban exile who came on the field with a sign asking for the release of political prisoners, during a game between Canada and Cuba as part of the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, in August 1999.
If Miami did not forget, neither did Havana. “Given the repercussions that incident had, we don’t know why the U.S. Interests Section gave visas to Padilla and Mendez. They behaved like thugs in Winnipeg. In Spain recently, a guy wanted to hug Neymar. There are specially hired security guards to prevent such activities, not athletes,” says an acquaintance from the neighborhood.
“Javier Mendez and Juan Padilla should not be part of the entourage,” says a taxi-driver friend, who recalls that some time later Alberto Juantorena boasted in an interview of having beaten Tintorero as he protested outside the Canadian stadium.
The bravado of Juantorena and the Cuban delegation to the Pan American Games in Winnipeg could not prevent the defection of the Pinar del Rio pitcher Danys Baez, then only 19 years old. Baez retired in 2012, with an excellent record.
A retiree, a self-styled sports historian, says: “They deliberately inserted Padilla and Mendez, it was a provocation.” And he showed me a paper documenting several acts of violence perpetrated by Cuban athletes in international events.
In 1962, to reject the athletes who defected from the 9th Central American and Caribbean Games that were held that year in Kingston, Jamaica, Fidel Castro said: “Give it hard to the worms.” Already in those Games, the weightlifting team assaulted a group of exiles who asked them to stay.
“What happened in Kingston was nothing compared with what happened in the 10th Central American Games, in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1966,” says the retired chronicler. And he tells the story of Cerro Pelado. Better that the readers remember it in the documentary by Santiago Álvarez. A confrontation of the kind Castro always liked, in the best style of the Cold War.
There have been other violent incidents by athletes, coaches, and sports officials from Cuba. One of the most embarrassing happened in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as recounted in the Spanish newspaper El País: “The Cuban taekwondo athlete Angel Valodia Matos and his coach were banned for life from all sports competitions after the former assaulted the referee after being disqualified in the bronze-medal match against Kazakhstan’s Arman Chilmanov, and the coach yelled that ’the referee was paid off.’ Valodia was disqualified (while winning 3-2 in the second period) because he exceeded the one minute available for medical attention after suffering a blow to the foot.”
The presence of Juan Padilla and Javier Mendez in Miami and their refusal to publicly apologize for the beating Dyer does not help ease tensions. When it is convenient, the regime turns the page. Or tries to let it pass. This has not been the case.
Florida-bound trips, temporary or permanent, by artists, musicians, intellectuals, and now by dissidents and athletes, are in full swing. The rope of Cuban-American exchange is still pulling in one direction. It’s time to also pull in the opposite direction.
Photo: Taken from the blog of Villa Granadillo.
1 September 2013