Cuban Baseball: Olympic-hearted
By Joel García Photos: Ismael Francisco
Baseball began to be played in Cuba a short time after it was created in the U. S. halfway through the 19th century. Most historians agree that the very first game was played in June 19, 1846 with the New York Nines trouncing the Knickerbockers by a score of 23 to 1.
On December 27, 1874, the Palmar de Junco Stadium in the Province of Matanzas hosted the first official baseball game in Cuba with Habana beating Matanzas 51 to 9.
And thus began the introduction of baseball into Cuban culture.
The economic and social situation of the island in that period was a fundamental factor in the improvement of skills for the first generations of Cubans who practiced baseball. The first seasons were marked by the strong commitment of the players to survive the serious poverty and hunger of the time.
Games ended with a "whip-round" or a public collection of money which often produced a ridiculous amount to be shared. Later, the baseball passion in Cuba started to increase along with the number of people practicing it. They began facing off with the best teams of the period from the u.s. professional leagues. Many players took the field more for winning a contract abroad than for entertaining fans or representing their country in international events.
Over the next several decades, there were numerous exchanges between Cuba and the u.s. This included talented players joining the major leagues and numerous visits and training camps in Cuba.
Life was still difficult for many players both on the island and the u.s. Players were faced with corruption, bought games and racism. For those players and fans who loved baseball for the purity of the sport found that the amateur ranks were a better alternative.
When the Cuban Revolution triumphed, relations with the U.S. started to break down and professional baseball ended with the last game between Cienfuegos and Almendares on February 7, 1961.
Taking its place was the finest amateur league in the history of baseball. The names of the teams and the league match-ups were changed and players had an opportunity to play for the joy of the game and the delight of their fans. This year, Cuba celebrated their 45th National Baseball Series.
Those National Series took root in the population and created special moments for Cubans. The passion for the Revolution itself reached into the game and the teams' fighting spirits and became known as the time of the "hearts on the field."
While being classified as amateurs, Cuban players are as good as the professionals playing in other countries. They have won 23 World Cups, three Olympic titles and 11 Pan American Games in international competitions. All this from a small island that has never encouraged the use or poaching of players from other countries.
Those immensely talented players who have refused the biggest pay cheques and have remained in Cuba for the love of the game have made their families and their country proud beyond words.
The past decade has been a tumultuous and exciting one for Cuban baseball. The defeat in the gold medal round at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games had taken away the breath of many fans and players. They had to settle for the silver. The Athens 2004 Olympics were one of the most anticipated by Cubans. After the initial loss to Japan, the team of young, versatile players rebounded to take the gold medal.
Earlier this year, the international elite, both amateur and professional, met in the first World Baseball Classic. This was a tournament that included the top professionals from every baseball playing country. Cuba finished in second place, after Japan, in a bit of a disappointment but still a great tournament that showed that Cuba's passion for their national sport and amateur program was something to be proud of.
Most recently, Cuba was saddened to hear that the secret vote at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) General Assembly held in Singapore had decided to eliminate baseball from the Olympic Games, effective from the London 2012 games. IOC President Jacques Rogge referred to the two main reasons for that decision. Firstly, Major League Baseball had placed obstacles for the participation of their players in the Games since baseball officially joined its program in 1992.
Secondly, the anti-doping control of professional baseball did not satisfy the Olympic standards. There may have been one more reason that Jacques Rogge didn't mention: that the ratings and money this competition provides failed to meet their expectations.
In the face of this decision, the strongest argument Cuban can make is to stay intrepid and brave, being loyal heirs to those who wore their "hearts on the field," and striving for excellence in every national and international tournament in which they compete. In being Olympic-hearted.
The players and fans from Cuba and Asian countries hope that this decision will only be a momentary defeat and that baseball will return four years later in 2016. The Olympic Charter allows for a future vote where baseball will be reinstated if it can garner over half of the votes, something which happened with water polo 69 years ago. We all hope that the return of baseball to the games will also be a return of Cuban baseball to the medal podium.