In “Havana Black,” Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura writes of the fanatical devotion of police lieutenant Mario Conde and his friend Skinny Carlos to their beloved Havana Industriales, the New York Yankees of Cuban professional baseball. I experience the roller coaster emotions of Padura's characters in the grandstands of Estadio Latinoamerica one evening, where I am blessed once again with the good juju of Cuba and learn why the Spanish word for “fan,” fanático, is so appropriate.
The night is clear and warm; exactly the conditions under which baseball should be played. The home team and their opponent from Sancti Spiritus are having winning seasons and I am told that this will be a good game. It turns out to be a more exciting contest than any writer could invent, as thrilling as watching the injured Kirk Gibson hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning during the 1988 World Series.
After paying a cuban peso apiece (4 cents US) to enter the stadium, three friends and I find the special section behind home plate that our cabbie tells us is reserved for extranjeros (foreigners). Realizing that the net in front of us will interfere with our photography, we set our sights on another group of seats along the first base line but are stopped by a guard who tells us the section is reserved for journalists. Our cameras and my claim to be writing a book about Cuba either fails in translation or persuasion, and we are refused entry.
We next find some empty, roped-off seats behind the third base dugout. An ancient guardian tells us these seats are reserved for an Industriales fan club, but we are then approached by another man who says that for 10CUC we can sit in the section with him and his friends. I agree and reach for my wallet, but he quickly waves me off and ushers us to some rickety wooden seats with a premium view of the field. A bit later he asks me to follow him under the grandstands and into a dark, deserted corner that would make me nervous in any other country. But I understand that he is simply collecting his baksheesh away from the eyes of the many police officers who are attending the game, his version of resolver. We watch from our seats and are treated as friends; cursing the umpires and cheering “our” team as enthusiastically as our hosts.
The game does not begin well for the home team. By the bottom of the fourth inning they are down by a score of 0-6 and have seemingly gone through all of the pitchers on their staff; I wonder if there is a mercy rule in Cuban baseball. Then inning by inning they score a run or two, closing the gap against the Sancti Spiritus team. With one out in the bottom of the ninth, the Industriales have clawed their way back to a 6-6 tie. The visiting pitcher hits a batter to load the bases and spark a stare-down between the two, but before trotting off to first base the batter shakes hands with the pitcher in a remarkable display of sportsmanship in this very competitive game. The next batter hits a soft single into shallow right field to score the winning run, causing the entire Industriales team to storm out of the dugout in a celebration worthy of a World Series game 7.
Despite the excitement on the field, I am equally entertained by the fans. After every important play, and each time the umpires make one of several bad calls against the Industriales, loud, heated debates ensue, each point punctuated by animated gestures, and I wonder what would happen if these people were not actually on the same side. Life in Cuba is complicated, but for these fans, just as it is for Lt. Condi and Skinny Carlos, baseball is an escape, a brief respite from politics, the economy, and the difficulties of living here.