Soapbox corner
Roberto León  /  NBC News
Cuban fans debate the World Series at “soapbox corner” in Havana’s Central Park.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 10/22/2005 10:07:51 AM ET 2005-10-22T14:07:51

In baseball-mad Cuba, Hurricane Wilma isn’t the only thing on people’s minds.

When Jose Contreras steps onto the pitcher’s mound Saturday night in the opening game of the World Series, loyal fans here in Havana will be rooting for their hometown hero along with another Cuban baseball idol, Orlando “El Duque” Hernández.

Cuban baseball fans are a pretty loyal bunch. They take pride in their superstars long after the communist government has written them off for their sin of defection.

World-class talent
Cuban baseball loyalty has also traditionally meant backing the Yankees. But, this year, the players supercede the team.

“These guys in the big leagues prove Cuban baseball is one of the best in the world,” boasts Alejandro Guzmán, a Havana waiter.

The fact that Cubans are playing in the major leagues is a matter of pride for this fan.

“Some people say Cuban players are inferior even though our national team took the Olympic gold in 1992, 1996 and 2004,” said Guzmán. “But look who is stepping up to the pitcher’s mound!”

Both Contreras and Hernández had winning records in the Cuban National Championships. Both played 10 seasons.

Contreras won 117 games for the Pinar del Río team with a 2.82 career earned run average and 1,346 strikeouts. When he led the victory against the U.S. team in the 1999 Pan American Games, Cuban President Fidel Castro dubbed him “the Bronze Titan,” a reference to a hero in Cuba’s independence wars.

Hernández chalked up 126 wins with 1,211 strikeouts and a 3.05 earned run average with the Havana Industriales.

Contreras defected to the United States in 2002; Hernández sought fame and fortune there four years later.

Talking baseball, early 'til late
“I’m a White Sox fan, and I know Contreras and El Duque will wipe the floor with Houston Astros,” said Manuel Rodríguez during a hot debate that takes place every afternoon in Havana’s Central Park.

At a bench called “soapbox corner,” baseball fanatics meet morning, noon and long into the night to debate the nuances of whatever game is being played that day. Cuban statistics are thrown around as easily as those from the American big leagues.

They also rehash all the old rumors related to their players. For instance, they renamed Hernández “El Niño” — “The Kid” — a reference to the charge that he shaved a few years off his real age when he became the hot property of an American baseball scout.

Where there's a will ...
One would think that few people here would be able to follow the World Series because the state-controlled press not only censors most professional sporting events but also the careers of athletes who have left the island.

But, as fan Luis Alfonso says “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

He is planning on watching on a friend’s illegal satellite TV dish, powered by a subscription paid for by his cousin in south Florida. Orlando Dominguez, a computer programmer at a major university outside Havana, hopes to find the game on the internet. Fans less lucky will be relying on their old Soviet-made shortwave radios.

In 1962, Castro eliminated professional sports on the island, keeping fans focused on the local game. But in the early 1990s, after the Havana Industrialists lost their star pitcher René Arocha to the St. Louis Cardinals, interest in Major League Baseball was rekindled — much to the chagrin of Cuban authorities.

Yet at soapbox corner, the passion for the game stretches far beyond the politics of the Florida Straits. Here, it’s a matter of national pride.

In the words of 12-year-old Guillermo Gomez, “You go, White Sox!”

Orlando Matos in Havana contributed to this story

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