Previously in Atlantic Abroad:

Looking for Leb Red (Velisarios Kattoulas, Lebanon, April 25, 2001)

Waiting for Gözleme (Pier Roberts, Turkey, March 8, 2001)

Caffe Sebilj (Jeff Koehler, Bosnia and Herzegovina, February 7, 2001)

Matsutake Fever (Lawrence Millman, Canada, January 10, 2001)

At Home With Mayor Baby (James Ross, Philippines, December 6, 2000)

Crossing to Kinshasa (Jeffrey Tayler, Zaire, November 16, 2000).

Among the Ruins (Tom Haines, Serbia and Montenegro, October 27, 2000).

Only Today (Michael Carr, Morocco, October 4, 2000).

Going to Meet Aleksandrovsky (Tom Haines, Ukraine, August 31, 2000).

Snowed-in in Shangri-La (Mike Meyer, China, August 2, 2000).

India's Road Cool (Mike Youngblood, India, July 7, 2000).

Manhood and Bureaucracy in Ozyory (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, June 1, 2000).

For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad index.

Share your tales of life abroad in Post & Riposte.

Atlantic Unbound | May 30, 2001
Atlantic Abroad

The Hero of Santiago

In Santiago de Cuba, standing under the balcony where Castro proclaimed victory forty-two years before, I asked a rigid cop how to get to the baseball game. "Forget maps," he advised. "Simply follow the revolution."

Monuments and markers to 500 years of various occupations and liberations line Santiago's crumbling streets. To walk them from the ocean's edge is to advance along a timeline of the city's tumultuous past, checkered by Columbus, conquistadors, rum barons, Rough Riders, and Communists. The line, and Santiago itself, ends at Guillermon Moncada stadium, home of the defending National Series champs and their star, second baseman Antonio Pacheco. Throughout the two weeks I'd spent traveling around Cuba, baseball fans had urged me to come to Santiago to see Pacheco, the former captain of the Olympic team. Cubans gave the highest praise for both his skill and his heart with the oft-repeated sentence reserved for their superstars: "He was good enough to go to the States, but he didn't."

I was on my way to an evening game to see for myself, but I was finding that the revolution wasn't that easy to follow. Two cops, standing under a billboard showing a sad-faced man and the words "Example and Dignity," stared at me as I walked around a busy intersection in search of the ballpark. I was a foreign male, and alone. That usually meant one thing in Santiago, a city increasingly infamous for prostitution. They looked relieved when I finally hollered, "Beisbol?"

"Moncada!" one of them yelled, pointing behind me. I was standing before the barracks Castro attacked in 1953, setting off his revolution. I headed north, past the billboards lining the Avenue of the Liberators. "To weapons if necessary!" read the first. The second sign exulted, "Our ideas are our weapons!" I expected that the next would be "To ideas if necessary!" Instead, on the edge of a huge, deserted parking lot stood a plaque asserting "Dignity and Liberty." The stadium loomed behind it, quiet and dark.

The ticket vendor assured me the game would begin in five minutes. To conserve electricity, the lights stayed off until just before the first pitch. The vendor pushed a tiny tissue-paper ticket through the bars. In exchange I slid him a peso coin, worth about five cents. When I turned from the window, two faces stared up at me. "I'm Jesus," one announced in Spanish, extending his hand. "I'm Carlos," said the other, shyly. Jesus took over. "We're twelve. Want to watch the game with us? We know the good seats."

There weren't any seats, as such. Santiago's fans watch games from rows of undivided concrete slabs. Against its khaki infield and lush green grass, Guillermon Moncada's bright pink, sherbet yellow, and robin's egg blue bleachers look like the set for a spring catalogue from the Gap. Players in faded red caps warmed up in the winter twilight. I asked Jesus to show me Pacheco. His eyes flashed with excitement. "You know who he is? He's the best." He bounced down to the rail and pointed in front of a dugout marked "Home Club" in English. "There he is!" The three of us watched the legend play catch. He smiled and chatted while he threw. He did the same sprints and stretches as everyone else. He looked strong. "He's thirty-six," whispered Carlos. The boys, like most Cubans their age, had watched and looked up to him their entire lives.

Soft salsa music filled the air. Only a few hundred fans were there, leaving Jesus with his choice of seats. He put us on a second-row slab on the third-base line, giving us a panorama of the field. The signs along the outfield wall advertised only the revolution. "The Cuban Athlete, Example of Patriotism and Competitiveness." "Athletes Bring Honor and Glory to the People." One sign promoted the sport institute founded to instill the moral and physical fitness required of Che Guevara's "New Man." Perhaps it wasn't a coincidence that the scoreboard tallied Carerras (runs), Hits, and Errors—spelling the acronym "CHE" in bright lights.

Without warning, the national anthem boomed from the loudspeakers. Jesus, Carlos, and the crowd leaped to attention, staring forward. The recording of the song crackled and sped toward a brassy, wordless crescendo. No one sang, removed their hat, or covered their heart. There wasn't even a flag to look at. After I sat down, I realized that we'd all been paying respectful homage to the "405" marker on the centerfield wall.

Pacheco and his team took the field. Nobody clapped. The pitcher struck out the first two hitters, mixing breaking balls with sliders and kicking his leg high like his countryman Orlando Hernandez, who pitches for the Yankees. By the second inning we'd seen three batters get hit. Each grimaced, then met the pitcher halfway to first base and shook hands. Carlos gaped in disbelief when I said that in America batters charge the mound. "What do they do when they get there?" he wondered.

The crowd cheered when a fan near us heaved a foul ball he'd caught back to the waiting pitcher. Shortages meant that balls were at a premium and had to be returned. Santiago opened the scoring in the second inning, pushing two runs across on singles, bunts, and fly balls. Everyone hustled. In the third, Pacheco led off with a single to right. Something clicked, and the crowd came to life, following the salsa music's beat and shouting, "BOOOOMBA!" When the legend came around to score, the sound of an air-raid siren echoed through the stadium. I momentarily worried that outgoing President Clinton was taking care of some last-minute business. Carlos pointed to a fan who had brought in his own civil-defense hand-cranked siren, firing up the crowd with its blaring whir. In the middle innings, Carlos and Jesus peppered me with questions as they stuffed their faces with cotton candy, cookies, pizza, and other peso-priced snacks. "Is America safe? Do you like Cuba? Do you like Elián? What do American kids do after school?" "Hey," Carlos asked. "Did you come from Miami to Havanna by train?" Jesus heard him and laughed.

The seventh inning came and went without a stretch. Instead, a uniformed woman brought out glasses of soda on a tray for the umpires, who gathered in a circle for a five-minute rest. In the eighth, Pacheco lived up to his reputation, igniting the best double play I'd ever seen. He lunged to his right, making a spectacular, stumbling stop of a sharp grounder behind second base. In the same movement, he took the ball out of his glove and flipped it behind his back to the shortstop covering the bag, who hurdled the sliding runner and pegged a throw to first for the second out.

Santiago won, 5-3. Carlos told me it was time to meet the players. I thought he was joking, but the clubhouse door was open, and kids were crowded around it. "You should meet Pacheco," Jesus said, pulling me inside.

There he was, smiling and laughing, looking uncannily like Sammy Sosa. Our approach was interrupted when three Americans in Yankees caps entered the room.

"Yanquis!" Carlos whispered. Their translator/handler pushed the middle-aged men toward Pacheco. One of them had $20 in his hand. "Tell him I want to buy his jersey," he yelled in English. His companion, bearded and heavyset, waved a bill as well. "Tell him I want his hat! His hat!"

The captain of the national team created and conditioned to bring dignity to Cuba removed his hat, signed it, and passed it to the tourist. Then he unbuttoned his shirt and began to take it off. "Wait!" someone shouted. "Let me take my picture with him before he's naked!" Jesus, Carlos, and I decided to wait outside. Pacheco had other hats and jerseys, they assured me.

The tourists emerged laughing from the clubhouse, proud of their loot. Kids surrounded them and pleaded, "Dollars, dollars, give us dollars." Jesus said, "I recognize those men. Last night, they were out with the sixteen-year-old girl who lives next door to me."

Pacheco exited minutes later in a T-shirt. He was gracious and warm, wrapping his bulky arm around Carlos and Jesus and signing my cap. On our walk back to their neighborhood, the boys shooed off encroaching prostitutes while I silently pictured the shirt off their hero's back cruising with Yankees in search of the next thing a dollar could buy after dark. We approached the sad-faced billboard where I had stopped for directions on the way to the game. I asked who the man on the sign was. "Abel Santamaria," Jesus recited. "He assisted Fidel in his attack on the barracks. His eyes were gouged out by Batista's police, and his sister was forced to watch." Underneath the sign, the policemen still stood guard. They recognized me and called out, "Who won? Us or the visitors?"

"We did," Carlos exclaimed. The boys and I continued home, following monuments to the revolution, only this time in reverse.

Mike Meyer is writing a travel book about China, where he lived for four years. He is also assisting Maxine Hong Kingston with an anthology culled from the workshops she leads for Vietnam veterans.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.