There is an orgy of eating at Cuban baseball games that starts with devastating roast pork sandwiches, ends with balls of shredded coconut deliciousness, and takes your mind off the absence of beer.
Getting to a baseball game to eat that pork sandwich—achingly moist meat and chopped crackling pulled from a whole roasted pig, piled on a fist-sized white bun and then lightly salted—is a sport in itself.
There is a Cuban baseball website, but it is either unofficial or badly done and so lists some games, but never the ones you need. There may or may not be game announcements in newspapers and on TV. There are hotel concierges, taxi drivers, and random people on the street who claim to truly love baseball, but shrug helplessly when asked when and where the next game is.
I don’t pretend to understand Cuba, or anything about baseball beyond how the game is played, but I do know that if I put them together and relentlessly ask 20 or 30 times I eventually get lucky.
That’s how I wind up in a small-town stadium in Guïnes one Sunday in October for a wildcard game as Mayabeque’s Huracanes challenge Havana’s Industriales to qualify for the second part of the national series. The “Hurricanes” don’t usually play here, but this is a socialist country and all things being equal, it’s apparently this stadium’s turn to host a game, on short notice, against the “Lions.”
It’s about 35 miles from Old Havana to Guïnes in the sugarcane fields of Mayabeque Province, and two baseball-mad fixers are smoothing the way—guide Joannis “Tury” Díaz Garcia and driver Mario Lazaro.
“The baseball stadiums here are nothing like the ones you can find in the States or Canada,” warns Garcia. He doesn’t know much about Canadians since he mainly works for a San Diego company and guides Americans, but he feels an instant connection because there are Cubans who play for my home team, the Toronto Blue Jays.
I have not been to Estadio Latinoamerica in Havana, where Barack Obama famously took in a 2016 game between the Cuban National Team and Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays while president, but hear it is the crown jewel. I do know that Cuban stadiums transport you back to a time before Jumbotrons, Nike ads and franchise food.
Garcia warns about the stadium, but not the fact it’s going to be hot enough to make grown men slap unsightly facecloths on their heads, under cheap sunglasses, and hot enough to make me weigh the odds of getting sick before buying that pork sandwich.
There are no authorized concession stands at this stadium and the motley crew of people selling homemade food don’t have any food safety gear like, say, fridges or ice to keep things cold or even sinks to wash their hands.
Speaking of hand washing, we find only one set of washrooms. Sometimes the men commandeer it. Sometimes the women take control. Absent are the attendants who keep things clean and swap bundles of toilet paper for a small tip. There are no lights, the toilets are the kind where you squat over a hole, and there is a bucket in the trough-like sink and a dripping tap. I envy the kids whose parents let them pee on the concrete behind the stadium.
We’ve driven here in style in Lazaro’s air-conditioned taxi and, given the stifling afternoon heat, I’ve begged the guys to try to buy “tourist” tickets. I went to a baseball game in Bayamo once and was forced into the VIP seats behind home plate. It wasn’t the money, since both regular and VIP tickets literally cost pennies, it was the fact our sedate area behind a protective net was virtually empty while the jammed home team stands were party central.
Today we are all equal. A ticket gets us in the stadium, not an assigned seat. I came close to being penniless when the ATM literally ate my bank card this morning in Havana—a lifetime first—but I risked my backup card in a second machine because you are crippled without cash in Cuba.
My fixers pay for everything in Cuban pesos so I don’t get ripped off and later I will pay them for their services in the more valuable convertible pesos that tourists must use.
Game time is looming but we linger sampling everything the vendors between the front gate and the stadium are offering—strangely neon hamburgers, yucca chips, chicken lunch boxes with rice and plantains, and “Cuban Fanta.” I draw the line only once and skip the drinks served out of the back of a truck.
Squeezing into the home team stands minutes before the game starts is a lost cause, but there’s a smidgen of space at the farthest edge of the area reserved for the rival team, which suits Industriales fan Garcia just fine. All the shaded seats are gone so we prepare to endure the brunt of the sun.
The game I saw at Estadio Mártires de Barbados in Bayamo was at night so heatstroke wasn’t a threat. Things were a little fancier in that ballpark—gendered washrooms, and the pork sandwich vendors had grills to keep the meat warm.
In Bayamo, I was fixated on hearing the Cuban national anthem and puzzled when the game started without it—and in the seventh inning. Turns out a storm stopped the game after six innings the night before so my game picked up where things had left off.
This time there is an anthem, but it’s a disappointing two short verses. Seems there used to be 10 verses but some that were no longer relevant were culled a few years back. I say seems, because in Cuba nothing is certain.
I can’t even get a straight answer on how long the baseball season is. It starts in the fall and might go until February, or maybe May. Cuban rules are the same as international rules, but the number of games leading up to the playoffs is different, and the way guys play for their home province is different. Players make modest government salaries, we’re talking 100 bucks or so a month. Some defect to countries where they can make millions.
Garcia enthusiastically points out key players, important statistics and local quirks, like the fact that conga players perform whenever the home team is at bat, and the way that people scream “Hey the lion bites you” because the Industriales mascot is a lion.
This small town ballpark has fans lined up outside the chain-link fence across the field, which is always real grass. More fans catch the game free sitting on either side of the scoreboard, which is topped by a Cuban flag and flanked by paintings of two local baseball heroes.
There is no seventh-inning stretch. Smoking is allowed. Drinking is banned so people don’t become loud and violent, which explains the lack of cold beer. Speaking of drinking, one of the roving food vendors stashes his bottle of Havana Club carelessly wrapped in a plastic bag by our feet and reaches for frequent refills.
“I recommend you put your Cuban Fanta in the shade otherwise it’s going to be a soup,” Garcia gently warns.
We do not talk of late President Fidel Castro, who famously banned Cubans from returning if they defected to the U.S. to play ball. Nor do we talk about his brother Raul who let Cubans play for select teams around the world during his presidency. Nor do we speak of current President Miguel Díaz-Canel, whose stand on baseball I therefore do not know. In December, Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball federation announced a historic deal that could provide Cuban baseball players with safe and legal paths to play in the U.S. without having to defect, but the Trump administration has voiced concerns.
We do talk about how foreign baseball, basketball, soccer, and hockey games are now shown on TV, although not live, and how contraband hard drives called “The Packet” circulate weekly and are full of foreign films, magazines, newspapers and reality TV shows. The government has a rival called “The Backpack.” We mostly stick with safer topics like the food that comes at a relentless pace.
One guy hauls around a garbage bag full of individual bags of puffed pork rinds. Another has baggies of salted but not buttered popcorn. Homemade ice cream bars provide heat relief, and coquitos (those sugar-coated, shredded coconut balls) are a newfound addiction.
Given all the umbrellas and facecloths hanging over sweaty heads, it would make sense to hold this game at night, but to save money, small stadiums like this don’t have lights. Another thing that sticks out—people are wearing ball caps from all kinds of American teams and brands. It is too expensive to make much gear for fans and apparently the government wants to avoid making specific players famous. Garcia, however, is quite the fixer and proudly sports a rare Industriales jersey.
By the sixth inning, it’s 88 degrees but feels like 100 and the end of the game can’t come soon enough. Besides, the food is gone. A couple of foul balls hit the tin roof over the stands. “It’s good that this section doesn’t have too many holes,” Garcia remarks dryly.
Industriales wins. The players stick around for post-game stretches while the rest of us slowly file out of the stadium.
“How was your experience?” Garcia asks.
“Perfect,” I shoot back. “Our team won.” The heat has fried my brain. What I mean to say is that his Havana team won the game, but Team Guïnes scored with its stellar feast that, for the record, doesn’t make me sick.