The scene isn't Havana's Gran Stadium in the 1950s but rather Little Havana's Riverside Park on a recent Saturday morning. And these aren't legendary players from Cuba's last, great golden age of professional baseball. They're kids, ages eight to ten, members of los Cubanos Libres, or the Free Cubans, a baseball academy.
The Free Cubans, founded in 1970 by a group of retired ballplayers, re-creates the look and feel of the defunct Cuban League of the 1940s and '50s. As with American youth leagues, players compete in divisions according to their age. Instead of being sponsored by the local hardware store or supermarket and playing for the "Little Yankees" or "Little Indians," though, they play for the city of Havana or neighboring Almendares. Parents pay a monthly fee, and replica jerseys, true to the originals in color, style, and lettering, are purchased from the academy. Los Cubanos Libres flourished in the 1970s and '80s, when it had almost 200 students playing for one of four teams -- Cienfuegos and Marianao, in addition to Havana and Almendares -- in three different age groups. Many of the alums went on to play college baseball, some signed professional contracts, a couple eventually made it to the majors, and one -- Rafael Palmeiro of the Texas Rangers -- is a potential Hall of Famer.
The academy, virtually unknown to non-Cubans, was a vital, symbolic link to the island's prerevolutionary baseball culture. Like every exile institution that traded on the past -- Cuban radio stations that revived their call letters on the South Florida dial or Cuban food brands transplanted from the island that found their way onto bodega shelves, for example -- Los Cubanos Libres was, at once, a nostalgic reminder of what were considered better days and a practical adaptation to life in America.
But that was then. In recent years, as memory of the Cuban League has receded and the demographics of Little Havana have changed, the academy's enrollment has shrunk to a handful. To the outside observer, things don't look good. But don't tell that to Vicente Lopez, the man who has run Los Cubanos since its inception. Lopez, a onetime pitching star in Cuba, knows a thing or two about comebacks. And survival.
His mind, as sharp as his curve ball once was, recalls every stop on his 15-year professional baseball odyssey: ten seasons in the Cuban League, ten summers in the Mexican League, minor-league stints in South Florida, Fort Worth, Newport News, and Mobile. Ask Vicente Lopez which game he remembers best and he'll answer without hesitation: August 16, 1956. On that day, as a 29-year-old pitcher for the Mexico City Red Devils, pitching in the Parque del Seguro Social, he outlasted fellow Cuban star Julio "Jiquí" Moreno and the Yucatan Lions 2-1, giving Mexico City the league title. "The Reds had never won a championship," Lopez says, "and the fans went crazy."
Baseball in Latin America was (and is) like that: more religion than recreation. Men like Lopez were its high priests.
Indeed, Lopez -- whose baseball life spans both sides of the Florida Straits, who competed with and against two generations of legendary Cuban and American ballplayers, and who, as a youth-league coach, has taught hundreds, maybe even thousands, of South Florida youngsters to play the game -- just may be, as Yogi Berra might say, the most famous local baseball man nobody knows about.
Nobody, that is, except his contemporaries and the people in his neighborhood. "Maestro!" shouts an elderly Cuban man, walking briskly past the courtyard of the apartment building Lopez currently calls home, "como se siente?" Lopez, wearing a uniform of burgundy cotton pajamas and black loafers, ponders the question: How is he feeling? "Well," he says in the same even tone of voice in which he once must have addressed managers who visited him on the mound during a game, wanting to know the same thing, "I feel better. Getting stronger all the time." The man waves, smiles, and is gone.
"The doctors found a polyp on my colon," Lopez explains stoically. "They snipped two inches." He'll soon begin chemotherapy. "I'm lucky," he says. "With Jiquí, the surgeons just closed him back up. They couldn't do anything for him." Moreno, Lopez's sometime pitching rival and longtime friend, succumbed to cancer in 1987.