For the first time in his life, St. Thomas University baseball coach Jorge Perez drew breath in his ancestral home of Cuba, but the most dominant smell he inhaled while there wasn’t great Cuban coffee or one of those famous Cuban cigars.
It was gasoline.
Perez, who traveled to Havana last month to serve as an assistant for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team in a four-game series against their Cuban counterparts, witnessed a land in which time has stood still.
Most of the cars in Cuba pre-date the Castro communist takeover of the island in 1959. And while the Cuban people have shown amazing ingenuity by keeping those classic 1950s-era cars running despite little in the way of resources, it has come at a cost.
“Walking the street you can smell the gas,” Perez said.“Those old cars emit way more fumes compared to the newer models we have in the U.S.”
That was just one of the many observations made by Perez, the USA players and coach Paul Mainieri, who coaches LSU but also has deep ties to Miami.
The Americans won three out of four games against a much older Cuban squad, but this trip had more to do with culture than merely baseball.
Perhaps the most bittersweet part of the trip for Perez was his journey to what was once his father’s house. He traveled to Guines — 30 miles southeast of Havana — before he finally found the light-green building with white bars on its windows.
Perez knocked on the door, explained who he is and why he was there, and he was welcomed into the modest home.
“I took photos,” Perez said. “My dad [Francisco], who is 77, got very emotional when he saw the pictures. He hasn’t seen that house since he left Cuba at age 18.”
Mainieri, who attended Miami Columbus High and Miami Dade North before beginning his coaching career at St. Thomas University, also made his first trip to Cuba.
Since he still has many Cuban-American friends from his days in Miami, Mainieri made sure traveling to the communist country would not bother his friends in the exile community. Once he received their blessing, he was able to make the voyage.
“I’ve always wanted to go, and I’m glad I went,” Mainieri said. “The citizens I met were as nice as could be, and the potential of the country is just oozing. You can imagine what it could be if the people were free like in the U.S.
“When you are in Cuba, you feel like you have stepped back into the 1950s, especially because of the automobiles. I rented a ’56 Chevy convertible and drove around Havana for a couple of hours.”
Catcher Adley Rutschman, who led Oregon State to the 2018 national title and was named the MVP of the College World Series, was one of the star players on Team USA.
Rutschman told The Herald he visited a cigar factory while in Cuba and also rode in a three-wheeled taxi, among other activities.
As for the baseball games, Rutschman, Perez and everyone interviewed here said the crowds were small — between 1,000 and 2,000 fans per game.
However, Perez said he was told this was the first Cuba-USA series that was televised on the island and that seven million of the nation’s11.5 million inhabitants watched the games.
“The environment in the stadium was interesting,” Rutschman said. “The fans were constantly blowing whistles and there was also a trombone.”
Another oddity, Perez said, was that the half the crowd seemed to be rooting for the U.S.,and some of the fans were even shouting the weaknesses of the Cuban players.
“I think I was the MVP on our side because I relayed all that information,” joked Perez, the only Spanish-speaker on Team USA. “Fans would yell things like, ‘He chases a lot of pitches.’”
Jake Agnos, a left-handed pitcher from East Carolina, said it was an “eye-opener” of a trip.
“It was my first time out of the country, and to see people begging for a dollar shows how fortunate we have it in the U.S.,” Agnos said. “It seemed like everything was stuck in the ‘50s there. Even our team bus used a stick shift.”
Agnos noticed that there were “stop clocks” on the traffic lights, showing how much time was left before it would change from green to red.
“The cars were the coolest part,” Agnos said. “I brought back photos and showed them to my grandparents, who could name every make and model.”
There was also a seamier side to Cuba, Agnos said. There was usually a guy right outside the hotel room offering to set people up with women and/or liquor.
There were other issues, too.
“Some of the maids were taking stuff out of the rooms, we think,” Agnos said. “We put the “do not disturb” sign on our door and turned the TV on so it looked like we were there when we weren’t.
“Everyone wanted some kind of USA shirt or hat because I guess they could sell that for more money.”
Overall, Perez said the trip was interesting but not truly happy.
“My overall feeling was sadness,” he said. “I could see how Cuba was once beautiful and that the island could be tremendous. It hit me hard.”
NOTE: The Miami Herald is now offering a digital sports-only subscription for $30 per year. This is unlimited access to all Herald sports and sports stories, thus allowing you to comment in the section below as many times as you wish. Click right here to get started immediately.