Some Notes On Watching Cuba's Best Baseball Players In Suburban Toronto

Seemingly, the only people that took the baseball portion of the Pan Am Games seriously, apart from the Ajax chamber of commerce, was the Cuban Baseball Federation.

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Jul 23 2015, 5:25pm

Photo by Joseph Swide

A day before the United States and Cuba reopened their respective long-closed embassies, and 30 minutes before Cuba played Puerto Rico in the bronze medal baseball game at the Pan American Games, two of the biggest stars in Cuban baseball, outfielder Alfredo Despaigne and designated hitter Frederich Cepeda, sat in an open dugout bounded by a chain link fence. It was just past noon on Sunday in the Toronto suburb of Ajax, and Canadian suburbanites in the tiny stadium's metal bleachers were already sipping from tall cans of Molson and Coors Light. Despaigne was casually taking a phone call.

The Pan American Games, generally speaking, do not matter very much. The United States men's basketball delegation in Toronto is headlined by Anthony Randolph and Ryan Hollins. The leading scorer in their first game was 35-year-old Damien Wilkins, currently of Los Indios de Mayaguez, who scored his last NBA point in April 2013. The baseball teams are more or less like this, populated by young minor league players and survivalists like Vicente Padilla, who emerged from Nicaragua's bullpen throwing eephus pitches against Cuba earlier in the week. The Puerto Rican lineup against Cuba on Sunday is mostly a collection of young minor leaguers, anchored by 23-year-old Anthony Garcia, a catcher in the St. Louis Cardinals' system; only two players are even in their thirties.

Read More: The Cuba Diaries: A Party With Living Legends

The Cuban starting lineup is... not like that. Only one player is under the age of 28: 22-year-old leadoff hitter and centerfielder Jose Garcia. Batting third is 35-year-old third baseman Rudy Reyes, who has played 19 years in Cuba's Serie Nacional, 15 of those with Industriales of Havana, a club often referred to as the Yankees of Cuba. Despaigne—the 29-year-old left fielder, baseball folk hero/demigod, and cuboid patron saint of long home runs and even longer home run trots—hits cleanup. In the five spot is Cepeda, a 35-year-old line drive machine––he's something like the Edgar Martinez of Cuba––competing to win his 14th medal for Cuba in international competition. And behind Cepeda is Alexander Malleta, a 38-year-old first baseman who first appeared for Industriales in 1995 and has since won two MVP awards and three Cuban championships with the club.

The Cuban squad lacks Industriales third baseman Yulieski Gourriel, widely considered the most complete player in Cuba. So, this collection of players doesn't qualify as Cuba's A Team. Still, many of these players are significantly overqualified for this little stadium in Ajax. But that is where these games are being played, and so that's where they are.

Baseball. Hats. — Photo by Joseph Swide

Ajax, Ontario, is a 40-minute ride from downtown Toronto on a commuter train that runs east along the lake. A former shipbuilding hub, the town owes its name to the HMS Ajax, a British cruiser that sank Germany's Admiral Graf Spee off the coast of Uruguay in The Battle of the River Plate, part of the oft-forgotten South Atlantic naval theater of World War II. As seen from the official Pan American Games shuttle to the stadium, Ajax looks like a sprawl of strip malls and cookie cutter housing developments. A marquee hanging on an Ajax municipal building encourages Ajax residents to show off their city while it's on display for the world.

Baseball and softball are the only events held in Ajax. None of the baseball games have been broadcast anywhere on live television, and even photos and recaps are nearly impossible to find; some implausible box scores and the tweets of a lone Baseball America reporter were the only proof that these games were even happening. A day earlier, I'd received a tweet from a man who'd lived in Ajax for four years and was taking seriously the possibility that the entire baseball tournament, as I'd (jokingly) posited in an earlier post, didn't actually exist at all.

Seemingly, the only people that took the baseball portion of the Pan Am Games seriously, apart from the Ajax chamber of commerce––or whoever was responsible for that marquee––was the Cuban Baseball Federation.

There are several reasons why Cuba tends to bring older, established stars to any and all international competitions, or there are at least several prevailing assumptions. One is that older players are less likely to defect; another is that leaving Cuba for any reason can be seen as a reward for a career of loyalty and service to the country. Despaigne and Cepeda, for example, have been unquestionably loyal to their home country throughout their careers, and have even been permitted to leave for a portion of the year to play in Japan as part of a special program developed recently between the Cuban government and the Japan's NPB. But the biggest reason that Cuba keeps bringing its best to goofy events like the Pan Am Games is that winning on any sort of global stage is another step for the "La Revolucion," which is understood as an ongoing collective struggle.

So, to put it simply, Despaigne and Cepeda were dispatched to the Toronto suburbs to beat a team of Puerto Rican minor leaguers coached by Carlos Baerga and Carlos Delgado, win a bronze medal, and claim another glorious victory on behalf of Fidel Castro and socialism and the 56-year Revolution. This may not be how the crowd of sunburnt Canadian little league dads drinking Molsons in the middle of the day sees it—indeed, they appear to receive the Cubans not as warriors for socialism but more like exotic barnstormers on the order of the Harlem Globetrotters. It may not be how Alfredo Despaigne sees it, either. But that's the intent of the party grandees who sent him there.

Go crazy, people! You just struck an extremely symbolic blow for an oppressive regime! — Photo by Joseph Swide

The President's Choice Ajax Pan Am Ballpark looks and feels like the community baseball field that would appear in the architect's rendering for a new a medium-priced subdivision development. The crowd is heavy on pinkish-red day-drinkers, but some Cuban fans are studded throughout and a woman waving a large Cuban flag stands throughout most of the game, shouting various words of encouragement in Spanish.

Some older white Canadians seated around me made quiet comments to their spouses about "Why can't she sit down?" and "What is she yelling about?" Younger white Canadians, rendered bilingual by the magic of Molson, join her by yelling whatever Spanish words they know, with the context and intonation of traditional baseball team encouragement. Some distance away, Despaigne hears a soused Canadian yelling "Cerveza!" and presumedly understands that the real message is to stop chasing breaking balls out of the zone.

Edgardo Baez's grand slam in the top of the fourth put Puerto Rico up 4-3 and delivered a blow to the glory of socialism. The following inning, Jeffrey Dominguez extended the lead to 6-3 with a two-run home run so mammoth that none of Cuba's outfielders or the infielders moves or even turns their head when the ball comes off the bat. Apart from Cuban reliever Yennier Cano entering the game wearing number 99, which led to Canadian fans calling him Wayne Gretzky, the game plodded along uneventfully until the bottom of the 9th. Still trailing 6-3, Cuba's first two batters reach base and the third—30-year-old shortstop Yorbis Borroto, who recently won the Cuban championship with Ciego de Avila, and was hitting in the nine hole—hits a game-tying three-run bomb. The very next hitter, centerfielder Jorge Garcia, lines a ball 400-some-feet over the fence in dead center, and Cuba has won the Pan American Games bronze medal.

The stadium explodes. Someone performs a heroic feat of strength, lifting the 5-foot-8 inch, 215-pound Alfredo Despaigne during the celebration. Despaigne empties the Gatorade bucket over Borroto during his postgame interview with a Puerto Rican television crew. A glorious victory for socialism, or at least a dramatic ending for a baseball game.

The free market is wherever you make it. — Photo by Joseph Swide

Afterwards, as the Cuban players file towards the team bus, almost all of them stop to take pictures and sign baseballs for fans. There follows a ritual unique to Cuban baseball, as a few players open up their bags and attempt to sell whatever team apparel they can. A Cuban reserve with the last name "De La Rosa" is trying to sell one of his jerseys for $100, enlisting a couple of female fans to help as sales associates and translators. A dad there with his son negotiates the price down to $70; back in Cuba, the average monthly wage for most people is usually estimated at somewhere between $20 and $30. After selling the jersey, De La Rosa pulls out a red ballcap and tries to sell that, too. He gets $50 for it.

Somewhere in the future of the newly normalized relationship between Cuba and the United States, there will surely come a time when all of the best Cuban players will play professionally in the Major Leagues or elsewhere. The process of normalization—not the political kind, but the broader process through which once-unthinkable things become unremarkable—will do what it does. It will not take long.

It will seem strange, probably very soon, that a player like Despaigne would put on the (awesome) red pants and red jersey of the Cuban national team in hopes of advancing Fidel's Revolution on a rinky-dink field stuck in a bland Canadian suburb. His teammates won't have to sell their jerseys after the game. For all the weirdness that we will miss, that seems like progress.