As I watched Tuesday’s Cuba-U.S. baseball game, and listened to President Obama refer to baseball as a binding factor between our two nations, memories came pouring back. I visited the island seven times between 1998 and 2006, always with a permit from the Treasury Department, and always with an assignment as a writer.

I have seen and played baseball throughout the hemisphere, and I can tell you that nowhere is it played with more passion and love than in Cuba. And the very soul of the experience is found in kids’ baseball games. Boys and girls play baseball throughout Cuba in the most meager of conditions. They play noisily, barefoot, roughly and with great skill.

In fact, the greatest baseball play I ever saw happened in a pick-up baseball game on a hillside in eastern Cuba. One afternoon I was guiding a rented car with two friends along a rutted road outside the city of Baracoa when we spotted a pick-up ball game among local boys. It was a big group, two full squads of shirtless players maybe 11 to 15 years of age. There were no adults in sight.

Equipment consisted of perhaps four or five gloves, a carved bat and some hard sphere that passed for a ball. There wasn’t a shoe on either squad. We parked the car and watched through the windshield. The field was a flat space at the bottom of a hill, which rose steeply to a ridgetop adorned by a single royal palm tree. Cattle had grazed the outfield to stubble.

After a while one of the older players took his stance, swung hard and smashed the ball on a line far over the left fielder’s head. As the fielder sprinted up the hill after it, the other defenders sprang into practiced action. Everyone who had a glove threw it to the left side of the field. The shortstop grabbed a glove and ran out to left to take the outfielder’s throw. The third baseman worked a glove over his fist as he walked over to straddle his base. The final glove went to the catcher, who squared himself in front of the plate as the batter pounded around the bases.

And somehow it all worked perfectly. The left fielder finally reached the ball, picked it up and flung it downhill to the waiting shortstop, who was backpedaling when he took the throw chest-high.

He spun, rifled a perfect relay to the third baseman, who in turn fired it to the catcher, who put a bone-jarring tag on the batter. Out. No argument. The precision seemed to stun everyone for a second, and then there was a collective whoop and high-fives including both teams. We laid on the horn of probably the only car for miles around.

I couldn’t help but think of this, and many other youth games I saw and played in as I heard Presidents Obama and Castro talk of the future. My greatest hope is that 10 years from now these young Cuban ballplayers, lean, confident, healthy and engaged, won’t be bent over smartphones all day. Viva Cuba!


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