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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US

After the Revolution
By Roberto González Echevarría

We used to play in a field by some railroad tracks, back where the neighborhood dropped suddenly from the low middle class to no class at all. In fact, the field lay on what was to have been a development, of which only some streets had been laid out before the project was abandoned. Right field was intersected by a lane that should have been the dream address of an aspiring family. The infield, however, was major league quality. It was kept up by a very old black man who lived in a shack behind the first base dugout. Every team that played on the field gave him a tip—fifty cents, a dollar—out of which he lived and bought whatever he needed to care for the infield. It was his garden. I doubt that many professional teams played on a better surface. The outfield was sandlot stuff, but the diamond could have stood next to the one at the Gran Stadium de la Habana, where the Cuban League operated.

We were a neighborhood team by tacit agreement, though no tryouts had ever been held. We had each simply drifted to the field on Saturday mornings and begun to play together without meaning to be organized. Somehow, I can't recall the exact details, we had a manager who arranged for teams from other neighborhoods to come play against us. He was an ageless mulatto whose regular occupation (if any) we did not know, but whose knowledge of baseball seemed to be limitless and mystical. He uttered his commands as if divinely inspired, with a faraway look in his eyes. Whenever things didn't work out as he had planned, I could see in his face a faint smile of resigned understanding, of pious patience, as if he knew that our current defeat was merely part of a larger scheme that would eventually make us victorious.

We were all from Santos Su·rez, but had no uniforms, no team name. We were simply Us, the ones who met at that field on Saturday mornings, who played catch with each other, who had taken positions with which we identified—teammates who were held together by some unspoken bond that needed no covenant. That was it, as I recall. For Us, we played with all we had, against teams that more often than not had names and uniforms. (Monacatus non est pietas, Erasmus had said centuries earlier, which a teammate many years later in another land would translate as "It don't matter none what they wear; we'll beat them suckers anyway.") And, if I remember well, we won more than we lost. We had practically no reserves, but every Saturday we fielded nine players, and our manager always showed up bearing a solemn face, as if the game—the one we were to play that day—would decide the fate of us all.

The revolution caught us by surprise and at first did not change our habits. Batista fled on New Year's Day, at the height of the professional Cuban League season, and within a week Havana was teeming with guerrillas sporting unkempt beards, wearing ragged uniforms, and carrying miscellaneous weapons. Many were peasants from the backlands who were seeing the capital for the first time. Everybody loved them. They went around happily, toting their rifles and machine guns with a casual air. Because they had no regular military habits, they held their weapons in the most comfortable, if not obviously dangerous ways. More than a few of them discharged their guns by accident, killing people in buses and crowded streets. But there was no sense of alarm in the city. On the contrary: these were the good guys. It was more like a carnival than a revolution.

On a Saturday morning in January 1959, we all showed up as usual for our weekly game. By the time we finished warming up, both dugouts were full of barbudos armed to the teeth, looking for some action. When I came back from the field during the first inning, the soldiers were loudly exchanging bets while all around them bats and machine guns now lay side by side. It was unfortunately a very close game, the tension mounting with every inning.

The other team came from a rich part of town and wore gray flannel uniforms with black trim. Their pitcher was a skinny right-hander with a wicked curve and much control and discipline. I don't remember his walking anybody, but I do recall spanking a couple of clean singles off of him. And I am sure that I scored one of our three runs and that I stole a base. In fact, we may have scored all of our runs in one rally, but the pitcher, though he looked frail and vulnerable, did not lose his composure. He was a craftsman, not a thrower. I don't know how much his performance was enhanced by the pressure in the dugouts, but it was plain to me that everyone on our team felt that there was an added incentive to win. A lot of cash was going to change hands at the end of the game, and it was not a sure thing that sportsmanship was going to prevail or that guns would not replace bats in settling the outcome.

By the ninth inning we were ahead by a score of three to two. Our pitcher was a hefty right-hander with a terrific fastball, given to some wildness. He had a very little curve that was rather useless, except when he was way ahead in the count. I hardly ever called for it. His best weapon, other than speed, was his wildness, which kept all batters loose at the plate (we didn't have helmets). This Saturday he was pitching a great game, his fastball popping my battered mitt mightily, so mightily in fact that I developed a bone bruise. By the eighth inning my hand was hurting so much that I called for a couple of extra curveballs to ease the pain, and our sage in the dugout noticed. When I came in at the end of the inning, he looked at my hand, let out a sigh so that everyone could notice his predicament, and told me to go out to right field after we batted.

Two explanations are in order here. First, although we were playing at home, we were not the home team that day. Because we never traveled, the "home" team was decided before the game by some mysterious agreement. Second, I have always hated the outfield. Although I was a very fast runner, I had become a catcher because most of the time no one else wanted the job. Catching had become my identity. I had played the outfield once in a while with modest success and occasional major misfortune. With our team not having improved on its slim lead in the top half of the inning, I went out to right field for the other team's last ups. As I trotted over the street that went nowhere, I was full of apprehension and foreboding.

Sure enough, under the direction of our former right fielder turned catcher, our chunky right-hander gave up a couple of walks, putting the winning run on base. He was still throwing very hard. Men on first and second with no outs and a right-handed batter at the plate. Just before he swung, I had a premonition of what would happen: that he would slap one late and in my direction. From the crack of the bat I knew he had tagged it. Sure enough, the ball was coming at me, a wicked line drive that was rising while also curving out of reach. I turned and ran with all I had. By the time I looked back, the ball had stopped rising, but I knew I would not catch up to it. Without breaking stride I pivoted, did a 180-degree turn, and raced back toward the infield. I grabbed my street shoes on the fly from the roof of the dugout and kept on running all the way home, slipping and sliding on the sidewalks in my clattering spikes.

—EFQ


ROBERTO GONZÁLEZ ECHEVARRÍA is Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literatures at Yale University and author of The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball, winner of the first annual Dave Moore Award in 2000.

© 2001 Robert González Echevarría

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