Our Trip to Cuba
by Dick Fitzgerald
(This article first appeared in the March/April 2000 edition of International Baseball Rundown™ magazine and has been reprinted by permission.)
Tuesday, March 7, 2000
My wife, Sally, and I left Seattle headed for Cancun. Our stay there for four days was to prepare for our "illegal" entry into Cuba. Legal or illegal, we were informed that we would be part of the first ever senior men's team from America to play baseball in Cuba. The operative word is "senior," although we were merely 20-year-old kids in 60-plus bodies.
Wednesday-Friday, March 8-10, 2000
Being from Seattle, we spent these few days in the Mexican sun for a quick "spring training." Actually, we did more relaxing than working out.
Saturday, March 11, 2000
That evening we played a little "Russian roulette." There are only two Mexican flights each day to Havana, one on a DC-9 and the other on a Russian-made Aeroflot. Luckily, we boarded a DC-9 for Havana. We landed in the dark so it was difficult to get much of an initial impression of the city. As we were making our final approach, I glanced over at Sally. She had that, "What in the world am I doing here?" look on her face. Except for two players who entered Cuba by way of Nassau and Jamaica, the rest of our players on the East Coast came into Cuba by way of Toronto. All 16 players (and eight wives or significant others) transferred from the Havana airport to the El Bosque Hotel. It was nice per Cuban standards, but mediocre for the U.S.
Sunday, March 12, 2000
That morning we traveled by bus (made in Brazil) through the countryside for about two hours to the Pinar del Rio area and the La Ermita Hotel, located in a beautiful, pristine setting overlooking a valley of Vinales, with mountains in the background. Accompanying us was Jesus Barreso Gutierrez, representing the Cuban Baseball Federation. He was very interesting and informative. For example, Jesus mentioned that El Duque (New York Yankees) was considered a "good, but definitely not great" pitcher by Cuban standards. Driving from Havana we noticed the lack of any transportation on the roads and the pervasive poverty. Still, the country has so much potential, if the political and economic systems would only change. During the trip we saw only a handful of cars and no gas stations—only bikes and trucks hauling 15-to-20 workers, all standing up in the back, to the fields. Some Cuban farmers have a quasi-incentive program to produce crops. Up to a certain amount, all crop production goes to the government. Any excess is kept by the farmer. There is no private property.
We played a "practice game" in the local stadium against much younger players from the nearby town. Being Sunday, it seemed like most of the town came out to the game—approximately 500 fans. They weren't disappointed. Home Team 34, Americans/Canadians 2. The Cuban kids hit four home runs, one by their first baseman that would have cleared the Grand Canyon.
After the game I asked where most of the players came from and where they played baseball, etc. I was told that they were just kids, mostly hotel employees and other town residents, who didn't play that much anymore. I mentioned that it was interesting that they could put together a team of that caliber from a rather limited geographical area. The coach seemed a little perplexed by my comments. He responded by saying, "That's no problem because in Cuba everyone plays baseball."
That evening we had dinner at the hotel, and half of the band who entertained us had played against us earlier that day.
Monday, March 13, 2000
Because of our "impressive" display on the previous day, our Cuban hosts decided to upgrade our opposition. Today we faced older players, ages 42 to around 55 years; however, half (10) of them at one time had played for the Cuban national team, including their starting pitcher, Julio Rivero. At age 50, he easily threw the ball in the mid-80's. The remaining players on their roster played on provincial teams. The game was played at the stadium, called the Capitan San Luis, a revolutionary hero, or Pinar del Rio Estadio—again before a pretty decent crowd. We lost, 12-0, not bad compared to the previous day!
It was obvious to us that our hosts were—and still are—amazing baseball players. What stood out was their quickness, despite their ages and slight builds. We witnessed quickness in the field, arm strength, and especially their incredible bat speed. They also showed a deep love for the game.
On the bus with us, hitching a ride to the games, was an ex-Cuban national team player, Roberto Moreno. Even though he couldn't speak English, his infectious smile and personality won us over. During one of the games, he made a Brooks Robinson-like play at third. He said he was 45, but he looked no more than 35.
After the game we had a tour of the caves of the ancient Indians, then had lunch and bonded with the Cubans. Everyone toasted new friendships by indulging in too many Cuban cigars. Many of the Cuban players did not know of Ken Griffrey Jr. They were familiar with Willie Mays. Speaking of great ballplayers, one of the best in Cuban history, Omar Linares, makes $20 per month, which is comparable to a medical doctor's salary. Linares is a member of the Communist Party and receives certain "fringe benefits" like a Mercedes, unlimited expense account at restaurants and hotels, plus the freedom to travel. All Cuban players are considered "amateurs."
Tuesday, March 14, 2000
We woke up to a beautiful sunrise and the roosters crowing in the countryside. That morning most of the wives took a break from baseball and hiked up a mountain. They reported that the view from the top was spectacular. Guess it was much prettier than watching another slaughter on the baseball diamond.
We played again in the same stadium and lost, 16-5. A highlight of that game was the pitching antics of Porfirio Perez, who was a provincial player in his day—now age 55. His motion and gyrations on the mound would make Luis Tiant look like he's standing still. It was unbelievable, plus he threw all strikes. The next day Porfirio wowed the wives with his loose-jointed moves on the dance floor.
We went to lunch in town, entertained by two talented singers accompanied by a Cuban band. Their music can be contagious and is almost as important in their lives as baseball.
After lunch we visited a cigar factory. It was mass production, late 19th century style, with hundreds of workers crammed into a large room. After tourism (700,000 Europeans and Canadians visited Cuba in 1999) and sugar cane, cigars are a major export.
Later that afternoon we were guests at Juan Carlos Oliva's home for still another cookout. Juan is Tony Oliva's brother. Typical of all Cubans, he and his wife were warm, friendly and gracious hosts.
Nearby we observed 10- and 11-year-olds practicing baseball and then playing a pickup game. It became obvious to us why baseball is king in Cuba—superior coaching, with much greater emphasis and focus on playing the game. Most of the coaches are ex-"professional" players who displayed a firm but gentle approach. In return the kids showed both extraordinary skill and discipline on the field.
Those kids were amazing. In four complete innings, there was only one walk! Half of the kids played in bare feet, with no batting helmets, and they shared gloves. But don't let the lack of fancy uniforms and equipment fool you. They would "kill" American kids of the same age bracket, and would probably be able to compete with U.S. players three years older. Young Cuban pitchers are not permitted to throw breaking balls until they reach age 15, so they only throw the fastball and change. Weight training is taboo for the upper body and is used only for the legs. They believe that the best way to get strong and quick with the bat, legs and arm is to play baseball and do, as they say, "baseball exercises."
Wednesday, March 15, 2000
We played our final game. Yes, Virginia, there is mercy in baseball. This time we mixed our players with the Cubans on both teams, so no one really "lost." As a result the game was tied 7-7 in the eighth inning. The final score was 15-8. Former Cuban national team shortstop Giraido Gonzalez hit two home runs and showed why he was considered one of the best fielding shortstops ever. Giraido is still a kid at age 42.
After the game, it was our last chance to give away gifts—baseballs, gloves, clothing, pens, soap, baseball shoes, etc. Each recipient was very grateful, no matter how small or insignificant the item. They all displayed a genuine smile to say "thank you."
Both Cuban and U.S. players went to a scenic area in the valley with huge prehistoric murals painted on the side of a nearby mountain. There we feasted on a roasted pig. Pork is a major staple in Cuba. Only pigs are fat in Cuba. All other animals are skinny, and there certainly is no obesity among the Cuban people, with few cars, very little TV, and little food available. Thus, more walking and less sitting and eating.
This was the time to say goodbye to our new found friends. After four days, it was obvious that a mutual respect had developed—our appreciation for the talent displayed by the Cubans, and their admiration for such an old group of guys who are still playing the game they love.
Speaking of old, the average age of our group of "finely-tuned athletes" was 61. Our youngest player, at age 51, was Bill "Spaceman" Lee, ex-Red Sox and Expos pitcher. His boyish enthusiasm and love for the game was an inspiration for the rest of us.
Thursday, March 16, 2000
Instead of playing baseball today, we went to a beautiful little island, Cayo Levisa, with white sandy beaches to relax, swim and snorkel. It was interesting to note that some of the Cubans accompanying us on the tour were not allowed to get on a boat and venture out to sea. Apparently this wasn't a one-time restriction. Many Cubans are prohibited from going out on boats, and it's not because they can't swim.
After the beach, we headed for Havana, arriving back at the El Bosque Hotel. That evening we went to the Latino Americano Estadio to watch two provincial teams play. There are 16 such teams in Cuba, one from each province. Players from these teams make up the Cuban national team. It was our humble opinion that the level of baseball was AAA. As Americans we paid $1 for a ticket, while Cuban fans paid a nickel.
There are 11 million Cubans, about the same number as the combined populations of Washington and Oregon. Imagine trying to get enough baseball talent from those two states to field 16 AAA teams, plus at least one major league team!
Friday, March 17, 2000
We spent the day touring Havana, including drinks at Ernest Hemingway's favorite bar, La Bodegita del Medio, and lunch at his old hangout, Floridita. Unfortunately, most of the buildings appear to be decaying. Some areas look like a war zone. Despite the appearance of the city, there is very little crime, so it is safe to walk the streets at night.
Not being preoccupied by baseball today, we learned more about Cuba, the government and its people. It was said that 60% of what is earned by the people goes to the government. In return, everyone gets guaranteed health care and an excellent education, and also an annual allotment of shoes, rice, beans, cigarettes and water.
Our farewell dinner was at Los 12 Apostoles, a restaurant overlooking the harbor.
By U.S. standards the Cuban people don't have much. Nevertheless, they are a warm, happy, friendly people. Perhaps they don't miss what they don't have. Without a lot of material things, the lost art of conversation, family ties and friendship are still alive and well in Cuba. Their lives seem so wealthy in the face of so little.
Saturday, March 18, 2000
After getting up at 3:30 a.m., Sally and I caught a flight back to Seattle. When we landed safely, Sally sighed and smiled—like our Cuban friends.
In summary, the trip was an unforgettable and unique experience. Baseball broke the barrier and opened the doors to friendship, bonding people of differing languages and cultures. The common denominator was a mutual love and respect for the game of beisbol.
Our trip to Cuba was arranged by Tom Robertson of Associated Travel Consultants, 105-389 Twelfth St., Courtenay, Canada V9N 8V7. Phone: 800-856-4777. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. His company will be putting together similar tours for December 2000, and February, March and April 2001.
Dick Fitzgerald would certainly not be considered a household word in the pitching world. Thousands of pitchers have been more successful. However, there probably has never been another pitcher in baseball history who has stood on a pitching mound longer than Fitz.
Fitzgerald, who is 65, still pitches competitively—locally, nationally and internationally. He has thrown more pitches than Nolan Ryan (of course, not quite as hard) - and probably more pitches than even the legendary Satchel Paige. In fact, it has been estimated by reliable medical authorities that Fitzgerald has thrown more than a million pitches in his lifetime. (Fitz Fact #1: Dick never had a sore arm due to pitching until he was age 57!)
Fitz has not missed a season of pitching since age 12—a steak of 54 consecutive years). He has pitched in youth, high school, college, amateur, semi-pro and senior men's baseball. For five of those years, he pitched in the Baltimore Orioles' organization, spending his final years in the Pacific Coast League, including a brief stint with the old Seattle Rainiers.
Beginning at age 42, Fitz pitched batting practice for the Seattle Mariners for seven years.
At age 50, Fitzgerald's fastball was clocked at 84 mph. At age 55, 80 mph; and at age 60, 78 mph. Now at age 65, he still can throw in the 70's.
During his extended pitching career, Fitzgerald has won over 500 games...and has averaged less than two walks per game. (Fitz Fact #2: In the last two years, Dick has walked only 19 batters in 301 innings!)
Though he retired from professional baseball at the relatively young age of 24 to go into the business world, Fitzgerald has elected to continue pitching instead of pursuing more normal "adult sports" such as golf or tennis. And there always seems to be a team and a league where Fitzgerald can continue to pitch successfully.
International Baseball Rundown™ magazine provides information about baseball all over the world, with news from many of the 100-plus countries in which the game is played. It has been published for eight years (since March 1992). IBR™ will be published nine times in 2000 and is sent to about 4,000 people in more than 90 countries.