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Going bananas over oranges

Baseball fans in Cuba are non-stop LOUD

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The stadium reverberated with nearly 10,000 fans pounding on drums, honking horns, blowing trumpets and whistles, stomping their feet and singing, chanting and danceing -- a fitting environment for any Game 7.

The opening pitch, however, wasn't due for another three hours.

On the field, players from the Villa Clara Naranjas and the Havana Industriales took batting practice, shagged some flies, stretched, signed a few autographs and hung around in small groups. If you thought the crowd would quiet down and rev up again closer to game time, then you don't know Cuban baseball fans. It was non-stop loud.

As far as I could tell, my son, Alex, and I, were the only gringos at the Estadio Augusto Cesar Sandino stadium in Santa Clara, located more than 2-1/2 hours from Varadero, where we were staying with the rest of our family last month. Santa Clara, besides a museum dedicated to national hero Che Guevara, has little in the way of tourist attractions.

We decided to take this unlikely road trip -- which wasn't offered in any travel brochure -- after watching many of the staff members at our hotel, Oasis Brisas del Caribe, hover near the big-screen television in the lobby when Games 5 and 6 were being played. (The tables in front of these TVs had never been so clean.)

Most of these folks were from the province of Villa Clara and they wore their emotions on their sleeves, in their throats and on the bottoms of their shoes. Any time the Naranjas -- literally "The Oranges" -- got so much as a seeing-eye single, they'd cheer, do a quick jig, says something in rapid-fire Spanish to one another and then do another 30 seconds of work while the next batter dug in.

Bartenders abandoned their posts during a Villa Clara rally, only to sprint back when a customer sat down on one of the bar stools, serve them a frosty cold Cristal draught or a Cuba Libre, and then sprint back. Only the very brave dared to cheer the Industriales, the Cuban league's equivalent to the New York Yankees.

The Cuban baseball season, which features 16 teams from around the island, begins in late October or early November and culminates with the playoffs in March and early April.

Never having seen a deciding game of a championship series of a national sport in its home country before, I called up a friend of ours, Frank Llabres, who makes part of his living driving tourists around the island.

"I have this crazy idea to go to Game 7 tonight," I said to Frank the morning of the deciding game.

"That is crazy," Frank replied. "It's sold out."

Tickets sold for a reported two Cuban pesos -- the local currency -- or a couple of pennies in Canadian dollar terms, but Frank told me we could probably buy our way in if I flashed a few CUCs, or convertible pesos, which are used by the tourists and worth 25 times more. So, if we went, we'd be going on a maybe, albeit a pretty good maybe. Sensing we might be passing up on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I said to Frank, "OK, when can you pick us up?"

Frank pulled up at 1:30 p.m. in his four-seater 1991 Peugeot and we were off. For good measure, we picked up his mechanic, Ariel, just a few kilometres away, just in case something happened on the way.

"I have enough tools in the back to take this car apart," Frank said. "Ariel works on this car all the time."

One thing Ariel wouldn't have to repair was the seatbelts. There weren't any.

"Cars from before 2000 don't need them," Frank said as the speedometer hit 130 km/h. "They're a nuisance."

Frank is a rarity in Cuba because, while he was born on the island, he also has a U.S. passport, having grown up in Philadelphia, New York, Miami and Los Angeles. (His parents left Cuba after the Fidel Castro-led revolution more than 50 years ago.) He can also leave the country whenever he wants. In fact, he was managing a group of Cuban musicians at the Brandon Jazz Festival in late March, just a week before we arrived for our vacation.

Much of the traffic for the first part of the trip, down back roads, was horse-drawn carriages and bicycles. Frank makes a point of pointing out some of the sites along the way -- most of them curvaceous Cuban women -- and gives them each a little honk and maybe a complimentary comment or two on the way by.

"This is THE game. The first six games have all been real close. Baseball is the national sport, the national passion," Frank said.

To illustrate his point, Frank told us there were 50,000 fans in the stands for the most recent game in Havana, which was held during the day on a Monday.

"Who went to work?" he said.

Along the way, we stop off at a road-side juice bar and the four of us order a total of seven pineapple juices. The owner only takes Cuban pesos, so this round is on Frank. I asked him what the total cost was in Canadian currency.

"About a nickel," he said with a laugh.

About halfway into our drive, we finally make the move to the Autopista Nacional, Cuba's main highway, which has three lanes in each direction. Shortly after, Frank slows down to the posted speed-limit because there's a police check-stop coming up ahead. Another car goes flying by us, but we're the ones they pull over. After telling the police officer our destination, Frank was asked who we were rooting for. He took one look at his orange-clad passengers and said, "Villa Clara!"

The officer gave him back his driver's licence with a smile. "He said he would have given us a ticket if we weren't cheering for Villa Clara," Frank translated.

We arrived in Santa Clara to find police officers and soldiers on virtually every corner directing traffic. We parked and walked one short block to the stadium, knowing the next few minutes would determine whether we'd just risked life and limb for nothing. Frank walked purposefully to the front gate and spoke to the one of the ticket-takers. He came back to me and asked for five CUC, turned around and passed it to the ticket-taker in a handshake and voila, we had our tickets -- at a cost of about $1.25 Canadian each -- and we were in.

No trip to a baseball game is complete without a couple of souvenirs, so I bought Alex a crisp, new Villa Clara cap for five CUC and myself a bright orange Villa Clara shirt for four CUC. It's a little more expensive than pineapple juice but it's still a great deal.

We made our way in and the stadium was already more than half-full. There was no assigned seating and it was probably just as well. Most of the "seats" were missing one basic ingredient -- the ability to support your weight. When they were originally built, each one had five wooden slats across it. But now, if you were lucky, they had two and many had none at all. So that's why everybody was standing!

We found some "seats" in the front row down the third-base line within spitting distance, literally, of the Villa Clara bullpen. We quickly realized the raison d'etre for most baseball fans at this game was to make as much noise as possible, no matter what the method.

One guy was banging a wooden spoon on a pot, a man in the next box was blowing a whistle while a teenage girl sitting beside him echoed each blow with a high-pitched scream, and another fan had brought what sounded like the horn of a '57 Chevy. Easily the most notable noisemakers, however, were horns, most of which were attached to, from what we could gather, bicycle pumps. The hundreds of people hammering down on these things made the place feel like a Harpo Marx convention. Finally, the only silence we would hear all night long -- the few seconds before the Cuban national anthem was played. The Naranjas then took the field and the 90-per-cent orange-clad crowd of about 20,000 went, well, bananas.

When their first batter in the bottom half of the inning hit a triple, the bedlam that ensued was only surpassed when the following batter brought him in with a single. From there, we saw baseball the way the purists meant it to be played. When a base runner on first needed to be moved into scoring position, the next batter would lay down a perfect bunt. No swinging for the fences in the hopes of making the highlight package on SportsCentre that night like you see so often in the major leagues. Many of the players on both squads play for the national team, which is ranked No. 1 in the world by the International Baseball Federation.

The game was a see-saw affair with several lead changes, culminating in a three-run home run by Villa Clara to tie the score at five in the eighth inning. The horn honkers were deafening.

The first thing you notice about Cuban baseball is the time. There truly is no clock. Pitchers routinely step off the rubber and batters step out of the batter's box countless times per inning, and not once did an umpire intervene and tell them to pick up the pace.

The other thing you can't help but pick up on is the interaction between the opposing players. More than one batter strode to the plate and gave a fist bump to the catcher before digging in. On the rare occasion that a pitcher hit a batter with a pitch, he immediately ran towards him -- but only to check that he was okay and pat him on the back. And a couple of times when a batter grounded a foul ball down the third baseline, he'd return to the batter's box to find his bat standing upright on the plate.

Perhaps it's no surprise. A number of the players on both teams are teammates on Cuba's national team, an international powerhouse that has won one gold and two silvers at the last three Summer Olympics.

In the end, the Industriales won 7-5 in 10 innings in a game that took six hours. Sad at the loss but elated from the experience, we hit the road again and got home at 4:30 a.m. We also discovered death-defying car rides go a lot quicker when you're asleep in the back seat.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 15, 2010 E5

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