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Baseball at the Intersection of Cuban Culture, Indpendence, and Identity

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To us the national pastime, for Cuba the national sport.

The Baltimore Orioles played the Cuban National team in 1999 in Cuba's most famous stadium.
The Baltimore Orioles played the Cuban National team in 1999 in Cuba's most famous stadium.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Ni picha, ni cacha, ni deja batear.

This phrase may as well have been invented to describe the relationship between Fidel Castro's Cuba and the United States during the past 50-plus years.  But what's interesting is that even if you don't speak a lick of Spanish, you can probably decipher three words in that phrase which are central to the message, at least if you are a baseball fan.  And that is not by coincidence.

In Cuba, as trite as it might sound, baseball is more than just a game.  As hinted at (not so subtly) in the title, baseball and the language that permeates it became part of the very culture and identity of the nation.  It might seem strange that America's national pastime would attain that kind of status in a country that has refused to have anything to do with the US for as long as most of us have been alive and then some.  Tying all the pieces together requires a bit of historical background.

Let's pick up at the end of the 19th century.  Baseball had been professionalized in the US by the 1870s and had certainly become a prominent national sport by the turn of the 20th century.  As it happens, it was exactly at this period of time that Cuba's nascient independent self-identity was coming to a head.  Having been a Spanish colony for nearly 400 years, Cuba engaged in what would ultimately become its War of Independence in 1895.  Baseball even had a part to play in the political fray.  In the decades preceding the War of Independence, tensions and unrest had been growing for some time, with failed attempts at gaining independence among them.  At the time, Spanish officials tried to ban the game of baseball from the island in favor of bullfighting.  Thus, baseball vs. bullfighting became a metonymy for freedom vs. tyranny.  The narrative practically writes itself: baseball, the sport born in and adopted by the nation that is the symbol of the free world, became a symbol for everything that Cuba was trying to attain for itself.  It's no wonder that Spanish officials would attempt to displace it with the sport that is quintessentially Spanish, and indeed a symbol of the Spanish national identity in its own right.  The effort, much like the war, was doomed to failure for the Spanish.

In the early 20th century, baseball's popularity in Cuba exploded, as did the country as a whole, in many ways.  Investment, travel, and trade between the US and Cuba was booming, and Cuban players frequently spent the summers playing in America's Negro Leagues and then heading back to Cuba to continue playing in the offseason.  Beisbol, being a symbol of the freedom Cuba had attained, brought with it its native language, as much a symbol as the game itself.  This is why, if you were to find yourself attending a game in Cuba, you might find yourself surprisingly conversant with fellow fans about the action on the field.  You might catch a fául, you might lament another jit de sacrificio, or really mark yourself as a true fan when you understand an ínfil flái.  This anglicization of baseball must feel like a godsend to Latin American players in modern baseball trying to adjust to everything else that's different about their lives in the US.  At least they can feel at home in the dogao.

And then we come back to Fidel Castro.  Even if we can understand how the sport itself survived, why did English terminology persist within the Cuban leagues when Castro, the orchestrator of the Cuban Revolution, came to power and disavowed all things American?  Simply, by that time, the language of the game had been established for two generations or more.  And in a perverse way (from a US perspective at least), Castro was still guided by the ideals of independence and freedom in his newer vision for Cuba's future, and baseball and its language were still fine proxies for that.  Castro simply had a different view of how those ideals would be manifested.

As fate would have it, Castro himself was a huge baseball fan.  In fact, he was a pícher in his youth - supposed owner of a "blazing" fasbol, or perhaps instead a great curva, depending on whom you ask - and tried out as a pitcher in MLB (for the Washington Senators of all teams, oh irony of ironies!).  His actual prowess on the mound as depicted in popular renditions, like most aspects of the dictator's life available for public consumption, was probably exaggerated.  Dictators do tend to believe themselves larger than life, and will often force feed their public the narratives appropriate for creating that perception.  In Cuba, if you wanted to be larger than life, you could do little better than to be a baseball prodigy.  But as outsized as the stories of his playing accomplishments may be, it would be difficult to overstate his fanhood.

Castro closed his borders to the US, and with that the flow of Cuban baseball players into MLB slowed to a mere trickle at best.  Castro also ended the professional baseball leagues in Cuba in favor of "amateur" competition.  It's a complex interplay of narratives and unintended consequences for anyone who tries to answer the question of whether Castro set Cuban baseball back for decades or whether Cuba actually entered it's baseball Golden Age as a result.  But that is not my aim here, and Castro's policies vis-a-vis the US and MLB can be summed up again with that colorful phrase:

Ni picha, ni cacha, ni deja batear.

Castro didn't pitch, he didn't catch, nor did he allow anyone else to bat.  The phrase generally describes someone who is being difficult; stubborn.  Castro didn't let anyone in, he didn't let anyone play professionally, and no matter how much you wanted to, he wasn't going to let you leave and play somewhere else either.  He was too much of a fan to let Cuba's talent play for anyone or anything other than love of country (his outright disdain for the US played no small part either).  And Cuba definitely had talent.  Cuba has probably the most successful Olympic baseball tradition in the world, for example.

Cuba still has talent.  That's why the opening of talks between the US and Cuba is a big deal within the baseball landscape.  It portends the opening of a whole new market of talent for the game, not to mention whatever goodwill might possibly be instilled. The Cuban people can watch their former heroes play in Las Grandes Ligas when they move on, rather than having to pretend they never existed.  More, they can come and watch for themselves in person if they want!  And the players don't have to leave behind their families and their entire way of life, knowing that they won't ever be allowed to return.  There won't be any more need for the incredible stories of players like Yasiel Puig or Aroldis Chapman.  We all should, and will, welcome that day.  It looks like it might come soon.  We know there is at least one thing our countries already have in common...