As the World Baseball Classic draws international attention, and cracking bats and clanging cleats signal the arrival of spring training throughout Florida, baseball is top of mind. This will only be my second baseball season without my dad. Usually this time of year we’d have several conversations about the Marlins’ starting pitching staff or how Giancarlo Stanton’s swing is too long.
If ever there was a sport designed for family bonding, it’s baseball. And for a Cuban-American family sometimes even more so, because the game links generations. Many of our parents and grandparents fondly harbored mothball memories of the 1950s — and it stands to reason, they were their last recollections of life without the rigors and effects of being refugees. Baseball, American cars (many were fossilized in Cuba) and Coca-Cola were the iconic cultural stalwarts just 90 miles away. El Viejo (my old man) was in the prime of his life during the Mickey Mantle ’50s and he fell into the gravitational vortex of baseball. It was a game he understood was invented by Americans, but he felt Cubans had an indelible enough of a mark on the game that it truly made it as great a fit as a Dril Cien suit, a popular linen attire of the era, on a breezy Havana night.
I always assumed baseball was somewhat of an American cultural imposition on Cubans after the misnamed Spanish American War. After some research, I discovered that Cubans felt baseball was as much theirs as cigars, café or the rumba. The general consensus is that the game was invented in the United States and perfected in Cuba. As bragadocious as that sounds consider that before American baseball’s racial integration in 1947, when Jackie Robinson played his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, winter baseball in Cuba consisted of the best talent from Latin America, the American Negro Leagues and the lily-white American major leagues. Thus one can at least make the argument that the highest level of baseball competition was in Cuba.
On the bumpy, not very well-manicured, baseball diamonds of Hialeah in the 1970s my father taught me the game of baseball as if he were passing down a family ritual. Our bond spanned entire lives up until one of the last semi-lucid conversations we shared (prior to Alzheimers) in which el viejo asked me if I thought they were ever going to let Minnie Miñoso into the Hall of Fame.
During international competitions like the World Baseball Classic. I harken back to my father’s love of the game as I appreciate the way the world (including Cuba) passionately plays the sport. Annoyingly for American baseball fans like me, the U.S. team always seems a bit too nonchalant and cavalier about the whole event. Therefore, the United States has never finished higher than fourth place in the tournament.
While the American team usually fades in the tournament because of its dispassionate approach, the Cuban national team recently reached an all-time low in the tournament registering a 2-4 record and shamefully losing to non-baseball playing countries like Israel and the Netherlands. I guess hustle and passion only take you so far.
Modeled after the Soviet sports juggernaut of the Cold War, Fidel Castro’s sports army flexed its muscle at every summer Olympics and Pan Am games. The Cuban national baseball squad was the crown jewel of the dictator’s propaganda machine. Back home in Hialeah, the baseball accomplishments of the island’s teams were a painful reminder of a country lost — a country el viejo could no longer root for.
This World Baseball Classic tournament, I watched my first game with my 9-year-old daughter, in honor of her abuelo. “Why aren’t we rooting for Cuba?” she asked. Because we’re Cuban-Americans and we root for the U.S.A even if they don’t play passionately enough to satisfy el viejo’s taste.