HAVANA, Cuba – After three days on the island any real understanding to be had was ankle deep at best. What I know of Cuba came from the many people here who’d bothered to learn my language, as I shamefully hadn’t the time to learn theirs. What I know came from the window of an air-conditioned bus, from the lobby of a fine hotel, from an afternoon’s stroll through their city and a day at a ballgame. What I know I learned through the words of Yoani Sanchez and those like her whose works are courageous and real, then from the brusque observations of Cuban officials.
I’ll let them decide if a few days of a U.S. president, a major league ballclub and The Rolling Stones have done any good here. If this was, as so many offered, their light at the end of the tunnel. Or if it is just more tunnel.
Maybe we overestimate baseball because we understand the game, the same way the game gets us. A summer of it is usually enough to set our heads and hearts straight again. So maybe we ask too much of baseball here, where the talent runs as thin and worn as the roof over the country’s historic baseball stadium. Here, where the talent simply runs.
To believe too much in the curative capabilities of the gesture – the Tampa Bay Rays played that game and clearly were moved by the experience – would have us at our arrogant worst. To dismiss it would be wrong, too.
Laz Diaz, a Cuban-American who has umpired Major League Baseball for going on two decades, worked Tuesday’s game in front of family and friends at Estadio Latinoamericano. He said afterward he’d been overwhelmed by the spirit of the event and his own connection to it, none of which he’d seen coming until he stood on that field and felt himself a part of what good might come. Hours later he hadn’t completely rubbed the goose bumps from his arms.
We probably think too much of ourselves in these affairs, and when baseball talks about the internationalization of the game it’s not entirely a goodwill gesture. There will one day be money to be made on this island. That seems a very long view, however, so it seems healthy to go ahead and be charmed by the charming, to be inspired by the inspirational, to be touched by the touching.
In the stands behind home plate, a crew of young men in black jackets earned a few pesos keeping fans from gathering in an aisle. Their subtle directions – a nod of their head, a wave of their finger, the quiet and authoritative motions that seem to prod a country – moved people without complaint. I dropped a pen from my desk. It bounced at my feet and into the aisle. One of the men jumped from his post to return it with a shy smile. Ten minutes later, he was at my desk again. He held the tips of two fingers against his thumb and waggled his hand. He wished to borrow the pen. A young lady watched. He returned to her and she whispered something in his ear, which he wrote on his hand. When he passed me the pen it was with a sly wink.
The day before, beneath the statue of Jose Marti in Havana’s Parque Central, a small yellow dog dozed in the sun. She appeared too weak to remove herself from where she’d lain, and ignored the feet that stepped around and over her. An old woman stopped and from a plastic bag drew a sandwich that she tore in two. One half she rewrapped. The other she passed in front of the dog’s muzzle. The dog closed its eyes. It would not eat. The woman leaned the half-sandwich against the dog’s mouth, straightened and shuffled away.
Two rows of international flags adorned the driveway of the nice hotel on the ocean. A Chinese flag, a Venezuelan flag, a Russian flag, maybe 12 in all, and at the end of one row, an American flag. Its red was redder than the others, its white whiter. Its creases hadn’t yet been blown out, even by the constant and sometimes hard winds that gusted over the seawall. This was a new flag.
Asked whose flag had flown there last week, the doorman flushed and said he couldn’t recall.
The last bus carrying baseball officials and reporters departed from the hotel early Wednesday afternoon. It passed schools whose yards were alive with children in their uniforms. It passed neighborhoods that looked healthy, new cars in the driveways and fresh paint on the houses, and neighborhoods held together with resilience, tin and baling wire. This isn’t unique to Havana. But it was for a few days.
Before he’d left, I’d asked Rob Manfred, baseball’s commissioner, what he’d learned here. He thought for a moment.
“I think the pride that Cuba takes in anything they’re responsible for is really striking,” he said.
He described a youth clinic Major League Baseball had sponsored the day before. Held in the same neighborhood as the Plaza de la Revolucion, the event had dozens of young boys being tutored by big-league coaches and former Cuban players. The boys listened closely. They were diligent in their drills. They hustled to their stations. They were what American coaches would call highly coachable, which delights American coaches to no end.
“That sense of pride is important to appreciate,” Manfred said.
I don’t know what comes of any of this. I do know that wherever it leads us, though, it’s three days closer. And maybe that’s a good thing.