By Kayla Shults
Havana, Cuba – The pitcher, dressed in all red makes eye contact with his catcher before winding up. The baseball flies from his hand, only to make direct contact with the hitter’s bat. What could have been an easy out at first base becomes a single as the ball slips through the hands of two infielders. Then that single turned into a triple as the ball gets thrown past the third baseman, and then the runner, dressed in an old Yale University t-shirt, rounds third base and dives into home plate to high fives and screaming from his teammates.
It’s a scene that sounds familiar to any American who has ever been to a Little League baseball game. Except this is in Havana, Cuba, and the conditions these boys play in are anything but ordinary.
On any Saturday morning, a group of young boys can be seen playing a game of baseball at the edge of what was Ernest Hemingway’s property on the outskirts of Havana. It isn’t your typical American Little League game. The players don’t have matching uniforms. Instead of cleats they wear shoes few American baseball mothers would let her child take the field in.
The land these boys play on has been used as a baseball field for more than half a century. Ernest Hemingway first saw a group of boys in his neighborhood in the 1940s and 1950s. He invited them to play baseball on an open spot of land on his property. The land is not the typical field that Americans would see on a weekend at a Little League tournament. Rather, it is a plot of green grass surrounded by trees that eventually leads to a hill where the right-fielder watches infield.
One of those original players was Cayuco Blas. He remembers growing up and playing baseball with Hemingway, who was the pitcher, on his estate. The young children knew nothing of Hemingway’s fame or controversy, according to Blas. They only knew that he was the pitcher, and he gave them a place to play ball.
Jorge is a baseball coach in Havana who works with Hemingway Baseball, a local version of a Little League. He works with boys, ages five to eleven every day of the week just yards away from the house Ernest Hemingway called home in the mid 1900s. It was he who dreamed of — and made a reality — the Saturdays that give scores of kids opportunities to throw, hit and cheer as they develop inner spirits that will lead them to productive lives.
“We don’t have drugs here in Cuba,” Jorge said. “But the children here go to school until four and then they come here to play baseball.”
As he places his hands on his heart, Jorge raves on about how great one boy is, both as a baseball player and as a person. He hugs the young boy, holding him close. Each one of them, he says, he treats as if they were his own.
None of the boys wear matching shirts and pants. They sport hats of different major league teams which, according to Jorge, “are sent to them by friends in America, along with bats and balls.” One wears a long-aging, ragged, blue Yale t-shirt.
The teams do not keep score. Jorge does not allow it. But it is easy to see on their respective faces, the frustration of letting a strike zone pitch slip by, or the pride of getting a hit or sliding into home plate. One young boy has a huge smile on his face as he rounds the bases for what should have been a single, but became a home run, thanks to errors of the other team.
Shouts of encouragement or excitement can be heard — and understood, even by non-Spanish speakers, when one child gets a hit or makes an impressive catch.
Parents, mostly mothers of the young players, stay to watch their sons play ball. Unlike a typical Little League game, there are no bleachers for the parents to sit in. Mabelina Frometaneyra, 47, sits on a tree stump near home plate as she watches her 9-year-old son play baseball, the game he has played and loved for the last two years. And even with the differences in uniforms and equipment, she says the sport is the same everywhere.
“Cuban baseball is the same, there are no differences,” Frometaneyra says. “All baseball is the same. Nothing changes.”