Petaluman goes up to bat in Cuba

HANNAH BEAUSANG  |  ARGUS-COURIER STAFF | March 5, 2016

Sometimes, all it takes is something as simple as a baseball glove to brighten someone’s day.

During a “goodwill trip” to Cuba last month, 55-year-old baseball enthusiast and Petaluma resident Alan Maciel experienced the impact of such a basic act of kindness firsthand. Maciel, a local real estate agent, traveled across the island to go up to bat against Cuban teams, playing five games over a six-day period while toting sports equipment to hand out to the next generation of baseball aficionados.

The matches, played in Viñales, Mayabeque, Guanajay and Cárdenas, were all well-attended, with local children crowding the stands through the innings, hoping for a chance to get the gear Maciel had collected from fellow Petalumans. Maciel recalled that one young boy had walked away in tears after he’d gotten overlooked in a crowd of other youngsters who’d gone onto the field to pose for photos and get free goods.

Maciel said he dug up a glove and other gear from his bag, handing it off to the boy’s older brother to give to him. He said the elder brother ran after him to give him a Cuban baseball jacket, and the ecstatic youngster had tracked him down the following day to say a heartfelt thank you.

“That’s what these kids were like,” Maciel said. “They were grateful for anything they got. … A lot of kids are playing baseball but they don’t have gloves, so they’re knocking down the ball with their bare hands.”

Baseball is a popular sport across multiple generations in Cuba, with officials even declaring a half-day at an elementary school in the tobacco-rich Pinar del Río region so students would have a chance to attend a game, Maciel said. The sport has been prevalent since it was introduced to the island in the late 1800s, with a professional Cuban League holding its first game in 1878.

Professional leagues were eventually dissolved and replaced with the current national baseball league system, with 16 teams across Cuba’s various provinces, after Fidel Castro assumed control and abolished professional sports. Cuba has continued to produce baseball talent, including big names such as New York Yankees pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, who defected to the U.S.

Maciel and the others in the group of 20 dubbed “The Foreign Devils,” traveled the island by bus with a guide to play against Cubans ranging in age from mid-40s to as old as 72, facing off against former heavy hitters, including a player who was once Cuba’s top home run hitter, he said, adding that the elder players still embrace the fine art of the sport.

“There’s no doubt that they love the game and they’re good at the game and at playing the technical parts,” he said. “At our age, most guys just swing the bat, but they’re still executing the strategic plays.”

Players on the Foreign Devils team, operated through Baseball International, a group that donates baseball equipment and sends baseball teams overseas, ranged from mid-40s to mid-50s, with one player tipping the scales at age 75, Maciel said. Though the team lost all the matches, Maciel said camaraderie abounded, with Cuban players coming to the hotel to share cigars, rum and stories.

“We were very gracious visitors,” he jokingly said of the scores.

Maciel, who played baseball during his younger years in Sacramento and then on Bay Area men’s leagues, has been out of the game for more than a decade, though his appreciation for the sport hasn’t diminished. He said exploring the country after recently loosened restrictions and experiencing the regional food, sights and baseball-loving mentality was “fantastic.”

“The takeaway was that in a country where there’s not a lot of money — an orthopedic surgeon makes $20 a month — these people seem to be happy with very little and when they’re playing baseball, you can see the joy in playing,” he said. “Even watching it was a pleasure for me to see the joy in the culture that you don’t typically see here.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at [email protected] On Twitter @hannahbeausang.)

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