The team that was to perform in Havana during President Obama’s photo-op visit and legacy-building exercise was chosen by lottery. The Tampa Bay Rays won that lottery, that is if you consider being a prop for Obama’s political posturing is a win. As it turned out, the team representing a city with the strongest baseball connection to Cuba and Havana was chosen to play this year in Havana by chance.
Tuesday’s game between a Tampa and a Cuban team, which the Rays won 4-1, had its moments. Though it was difficult to follow the game with all the ESPN political interviews that took precedence over baseball. But Tuesday’s game was no livelier than the hotly contested, long-ago battles between the Tampa Smokers and the Havana Cubans of the Class C Florida International League. These were the first baseball games I saw, my father taking me along with him as soon as I was old enough to stay awake until the seventh inning stretch.
The first Smokers/Cubans games I saw took place in the early fifties. The FIL prospered from its inception in 1946 until television and the departure of the Havana team from the league forced it to adjourn sine die just a few games into the 1953 season. Havana was the league’s biggest draw, and the team finally secured the AAA franchise it had sought for years. But the biggest factor in the demise of many a minor league was the nationwide invasion of the one-eyed living room monster. Why stout-hearted Americanos would prefer to stay home and watch Milton Berle on TV for nothing rather than pay 35 cents or so to watch a lively baseball game, I’ll never understand. There’s just no accounting for taste.
And those Smokers/Cubans games were lively indeed. The Tampa team was named after the local cigar industry (which the anti-smoking killjoys have long since destroyed), most of the employees of which were Cubans or Cuban-Americans. So the rivalry was a natural, and it was intense. Crowds were modest at old Plant Field in Tampa when the Smokers hosted teams such as the Miami Tourists, the Lakeland Pilots, the Key West Conchs, the Saint Petersburg Saints, or the West Palm Beach Indians (no relation to the Clevelands — this was before Major League teams developed farm systems). But the ball yard was packed and rocking when Havana came to town. Likewise at Gran Stadium in Havana when the Smokers went south. My father, who was bilingual, would listen to the Smokers games in Spanish from Havana on radio. Smokers/Cubans games lasted longer than most because the Cubans argued every close call that went against them, while highly partisan fans hooted in the stands.
A great good time was had by all. The crowd cheered or groaned on every pitch. There was no loud, piped in music such as blights the modern game. No noisy scoreboard, no stupid games on the Jumbotron, no one having thought of that abomination yet. But that didn’t mean the games were quiet affairs. Au the contraire. The stands were full of folks with horns or cow bells. And the beer-tenders were kept hopping. It’s no wonder, with this kind of start, that I developed an early taste for the Grand Old Game.
Smokers and Cubans players were talented as well as competitive. Either the Smokers or the Cubans won the FIL championship most of the seven years of the league’s existence. These games, of course, were only of local interest, being deep in the bus leagues. Only one player made it to the bigs after playing for the Smokers. That was speedy outfielder Carlos Bernier, a native of Puerto Rico, who played one year for the Pittsburgh Pirates where he hit .213, which earned him a seat on yet another minor league bus.
The Havana Sugar-kings competed in the AAA International League until El Jefe Maximo came down out of the mountains, stole most of the country, and boarded up the door marked exit. Many Cubans players have made it off the island, one way or the other, to star in the Major Leagues since then. But there would have been more players here in the absence of a Castro takeover. And it’s very possible that Havana would have been awarded a Major League expansion franchise before either Montreal or Toronto.
Let’s be clear, Castro’s predecessor, Fulgencia Batista, was no walk on the beach. But he wasn’t, as we’ve learned to say, bad for baseball. During his time, American baseball fans were presented with such gifts as Minnie Minoso, Sandy Consuegro, Connie Marrero, Tony Perez, Tony Oliva, Camilo Pascual, Pedro Ramos, and Luis Tiant — who, still wearing a Red Sox cap, threw out yesterday’s first pitch. Happily, many fine ballplayers escaped the island post-Fidel, including Rolando Arrojo, the first pitcher to start a game for the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998. Though many might suggest that the package that turned out to be Jose Canseco should have been marked “return to sender.”
The game is over and the Rays are safely back home to continue their spring training schedule. The 50K or so folks at Estadio Latinoamericano and countless others at home before their TVs (those Cubans who can afford one) had a good time Tuesday, as did the youngsters who interacted with Rays players during the visit. These are the only good takeaways from an otherwise cynical political charade as Barack Obama resumes posing for group shots in front of murals of Che Guevara.