This wasn’t a competition; it was a treat for him and everyone else, including me. How often do we get to play stickball in the streets of Havana with the kids of Cuba, and how often do they get to play with the kids of America?
It was a group of Mormon missionaries that I had met only a few weeks earlier in Mexico that had proposed the idea of going to Cuba. They had traveled to all parts of the world and spoke Spanish so well that locals mistook them for Argentineans.
And while most would sip down a cold cerveza on a hot day, they preferred the wicked fizz of Coca-Cola. It was with these adventurers, Jeff, Justin, Tanya and Randall that I experienced one of the greatest days ever.
Without fail, it seems that perfect moments and memories manifest themselves out of nothing. So when I found myself walking in a complete daze through the crumbling streets of Havana, Cuba, a city who’s grandeur hides behind years of neglect and sanctions, the line between reality and the surreal was thin. A week earlier I hadn’t even thought of such a journey. Now I was greedily soaking up every bit of scenery, smell, and sound. I just couldn’t get enough of the thick Caribbean air, the pastel colors that adorned the chipped stucco on the old Cubana buildings, and the old Chevy and Pontiac cars that made you feel as if you were in a 50’s time warp.
In the streets of Havana, we stirred curious interest from everyone we passed: men working on carcachas (junker cars) with hopes of resurrection, old women clad in purple and pink spandex sweeping their porches clean of debris, and of course the children who were consumed with their passion, beisbol.
Cubans and Americans have a common love, and that is baseball. On almost every Havana street, walled in by buildings that once were beautiful but now stand battered and weathered by the salty air, you can hear the howls of kids playing stickball and dodging cars. Here, beisbol is king of the street.
As we passed through the calles commandeered for the ball games, the bright smiles on the children’s faces and the screams of enjoyment were just too hard to resist. All it took that day was a few enthusiastic words in my broken Spanish, “podemos jugar con ustedes?” and before we knew it, the famous baseball rivalry, America versus Cuba was taking center stage on a street in Havana.
The excitement was visible on every person’s face. Our Cuban counterparts, 12 to 17 year old boys dressed in tank tops and shorts, tried but could not restrain their immense pride in representing their country, in what I guess can be compared to as the World Series of stickball. All the men working on their carcachas left them for another day, the old women put down their brooms, little giggling girls began to congregate, and the laundry lines that hung from the windows were now replaced with upperdeck seating as the balconies came alive with people. A small crowd had begun to surround this urban field.
The ball park boundaries were laid out: any ball hit before the tan apartment and through windows were out of play, three pitches and you’re out, and if you hit it over the fence or past the street lamp, homerun. And with those directions, the game was on.
I was nervous. After all I hadn’t swung a bat, or in this case a stick, since I was cut from the college baseball team two years earlier. And the Cubans, who have produced some of baseball’s most talented athletes, were the opposition. So I gingerly stepped up to the rusty tin pan that served as home plate, took a few practice swings, and assumed my batting stance. The pitcher, a large, muscular sixteen-year-old stared in at me, and I can only imagine what he thought of the sunburned gringo that he was now facing.
With a smile he wound up and fired in the baseball, a tightly rolled ball of tape that danced in the air. Thinking I was He-Man, or more likely showing off for the crowd, I took an enormous rip with my weapon, and hit nothing but air. The spectators howled and shouted out words of encouragement”for me, I think. Determined not to look like a fool I took my batting stance once again. I focused in on that big kid, and he just smiled with a twinkle in his eye like he knew something I didn’t.
Excited yells began coming from the balconies, “cuidado! cuidado!” and at that moment the pitcher and everyone else scattered to the door stoops, where I joined them just as a rusty blue 56 Chevy came barreling around the corner. With a honk, a wave, and a cloud of smoke it was gone, and the game was back.
As I waited again, poised with my stick, the pitcher sent the ball of tape speeding my way and I took another huge swing, this time whacking the ball with authority “it sliced into to the street like a laser for a base hit. The crowd erupted with cheers, sending little shivers down my spine, and I stood on first base with a grin that stayed with me for the rest of the day. People were patting me on the back like I just did something great. And the pitcher smiled at me with that same twinkle in his eye. This wasn’t a competition; it was a treat for him and everyone else, including me. How often do we get to play stickball in the streets of Havana with the kids of Cuba, and how often do they get to play with the kids of America?
We played for hours, dodging cars and not even worrying about the score, which was lopsided with the many homeruns they hit. It was the most fun I’ve ever had losing. It was a special moment in all our lives, the Mormon’s, the Cubans’ and mine that we could never have planned, yet it was perfect.