A Legendary Love

Islands Magazine – June, 2004

It’s the third inning and Cuba’s Estadio Latinoamerico is nearly empty, which doesn’t dampen my thrill. After all, it’s eight o’clock, 80 degrees, and a soft breeze gently tickles the flags above the bleachers. It is an idyllic Havana evening and a perfect night for baseball, so I’m not about to complain. Except for one thing. The home team stinks. We’re talking Tampa Devil Rays or’62 Mets bad, which makes sense because I’m watching Havana’s version of the Mets – the Metropolitanos. But amidst the sweet tropical lethargy that takes hold of fans and Mets’ players alike with each ensuing blunder, there is one captivating presence: a wiry, impassioned, cappuccino tinted figure who blasts his whistle and claps his hands rhythmically, continuously and with surreal optimism.

The Mets have just committed their third error and fallen perilously behind. With two runners on our pitcher throws a curve, the umpire calls it a ball and the old man goes ballistic. In rapid fire Cuban slang, he unleashes a hurricane of unpleasantries, and the ump has to take it because his assailant is not a manager, coach or player.

“Who is that?” I ask my Cuban companion.

“Armandito,” he replies off hand, as if I should know him, like all of Cuba does – as the world’s greatest baseball fan.

63-year-old Armando Luis Torres Torres has been to every game, sitting in the same seat, since 1968, but he doesn’t literally sit. He stands on the dugout, paces the aisles, dances, spins, jumps, and puffs his whistle to rally the crowd. In 1998 the government declared him “El Presidente de Hace de Buya,” or “President of the Commission of Having Fun.” His unofficial government status offers tangible benefits. He has his own relatively new vehicle, no small coup in a nation of ’57 Chevys, which he uses to travel to stadiums throughout the nation, and he tours with the national team.

“I come to all the games. There isn’t a lot of people here, no problem,” Armandito tells me. “I’ll make a lot of noise. My voice never stops.” The Metropolitanos are not his favorite, that would be Havana’s other team, the Industriales, a club that closely parallels the Yankees in terms of league domination, but he refuses to count the Mets out tonight, though they now trail by eight. “In baseball, you never know,” he advises.

Baseball is timeless. It is the only major team sport where the clock is not a determining factor, so the home team always gets one last chance. Time is catching up with Cuba, however. The stadium is a prime example. It was state of the art when it opened in 1946, but today the paint has peeled, seats are in disrepair, and several bulbs on the light towers are out. Similar to most eroding Cuban edifices, it projects a dusty dignity that reflects a glorious past, but could use a tender hand.

The Cuban affinity for baseball is a living, breathing phenomenon. Baseball, or as it is popularly known, “Pelota” is everywhere. Games form sizzle and dissipate in the streets, public parks, against dilapidated apartments and on the grounds of colonial masterpieces. Kids play barefoot with make shift balls, sticks for bats, and trees for bases.
When Armandito was growing up in the fifties, Havana was America’s playground and Cuban professional baseball flourished, augmented by a steady influx of American pros. Tommy Lasorda, the former Dodger manager, was one of several Armandito saw play when he attended his first game with his father in 1952. Lasorda relished his time in the tropics. “The Cuban people were tremendous fans, tremendous people,” he said enthusiastically. During those days, Cuba was rife with racial and social inequities, which bred instability. “I saw the government change hands twice,” said Lasorda. “I played in 1952 when Batista overthrew Prio, and in 1959 when Castro took over.” Lasorda pitched Cuba to a Caribbean championship that same year. Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax also played in Cuba before professional baseball was banned in 1960. In fact, Koufax pitched the final professional game at Armandito’s home away from home, which, naturally, he attended. His historic streak began years later when the amateur league was organized.

Armandito takes pride in the fact that American baseball lore is likewise freckled with Cuban born stars, from the Negro Leagues’ Martin Dhigo to the Big Red Machine’s Tony Perez, to present day star hurlers Livan and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, both of whom found wealth, stardom and won World Series in the major leagues. Armandito knows El Duque personally. When asked about the great fan, El Duque laughs with recognition. “He watched me from when I was in little league.” Armandito also witnessed his development in Havana’s Baseball Academy, saw him pitch brilliantly for the Industriales and rejoiced in his gold medal victory for Cuba in 1992. “Wherever there was baseball, there he was,” said Hernandez.

Armandito was recognized by the government because his love for baseball is an extreme manifestation of what most Cubans feel. In 1999 he enjoyed the return of professional Baseball to Cuba. The Baltimore Orioles played the National Team, one game each in Havana and Baltimore. Armandito cheered the Cubans to a remarkable12-6 romp at Camden Yards over an Oriole squad sporting a $70 million payroll, while the amateur Cuban players live on stipends of $20 a month. During both games the streets of Cuba were deserted. Everyone watched.

“In Cuba the passion [for baseball] is unlimited,” El Duque told me. Armandito agrees. “The teams I support, if they’re in first place, I’ll go anywhere to watch them.”

A distinct, infectious style pulses through the players; even in the blowout I watch with Armandito, that spark flickers. On defense, the athletes possess sharp instincts, stretch and dive effortlessly, flip and toss the ball with poetic accuracy. Offensively, runners are ever alert to take the extra base; sacrifice bunts, and hit and runs are commonplace. These tactics, and, I like to think, Armandito’s faith, propel the Mets on an unthinkable comeback, and by the bottom of the ninth are within a run. Armandito leads the cheers, we chant, clap, and stomp dutifully, as the game winds down to its defining moment. The Mets have runners on first and second with two outs, when the batter digs in for an epic twelve-pitch battle. We scream, we hope, we pray, until our man delivers and drives a ball deep into the right-center field gap. The winning run scores on a close play, and we celebrate wildly. I soak in the mayhem and glance at Armandito who winks back, as if to say, “I love baseball.”