Love for the game. That’s what the Nanaimo Pirates wanted to see, and experience, and understand, and feel, when they travelled all the way to Cuba for spring training. That’s exactly what they found.
They found it on the baseball diamond, and in the stands, and all around them.
“Every corner you turn, you see a stickball game in a schoolyard, or even in a backyard,” said Adam McLeod, Pirates catcher.
One evening, just walking around the city of Pinar del Río, they counted 20 games, said Pirates manager Doug Rogers.
“Kids were swinging branches, just sticks that were shaved down,” he said. “And they didn’t have balls, so they just used tape or bottle caps or whatever they had.”
As it happened, the Pirates had packed just right for their trip, bringing gifts of used equipment.
“That’s yours; you keep it,” Rogers told one boy, to whom he’d tossed a baseball. “He started crying and then all of a sudden all the parents and relatives and friends come out of their homes and start hugging us and patting us on the back and shaking hands. It was really, really cool.”
The Pirates gave North American baseball equipment and received gratitude, and it was a fair trade.
Nanaimo’s B.C. Premier Baseball League club spent eight days on the Caribbean island nation in March, mostly in Pinar del Río. The Pirates practised twice a day and got in three games, losing 16-4 and winning 11-6 against a 16-and-under team and wining 6-5 against a 22-and-under team that used younger pitchers.
“They definitely play with a lot of heart. They love the game down there,” McLeod said. “They have a lot of talent, a lot of skilled players.”
The Pirates got to see that first-hand and also from the stands, as they took in three professional baseball games including one at a 65,000-seat stadium in the capital city of Havana. Cuban players are among the world’s best, as they continually prove in international tournaments, and it’s evident from the bleachers. The Pirates marvelled at the Cubans’ arm strength, hitting power and foot speed.
“The players are just outstanding; the level is out-of-sight,” Rogers said. “But the atmosphere is what really got me. The stadiums were full, all the people that were there are so passionate about the game and the noise level was insane.”
It’s like a carnival, he said, and the Cuban players soak it in, dawdling to the plate, having animated conversations between pitches, even singing and dancing to celebrate a home run.
“If we did that [in the premier league], the next guy would get plunked,” Rogers said. “[But] they’re not looking to show anybody up; it’s just the way they are.”
The Pirates players, for their part, were “fantastic ambassadors” for Nanaimo, the BCPBL and their province and country, the manager said.
Some aspects of Cuban baseball will be hard to bring back to Canada, but the Pirates tried to pick up some tips and they may implement some new stretching exercises and warm-up techniques.
More memorably, they’ve seen a sort of raw, real baseball that most people never get to see. They’ve returned home as a better ball team, one way or the other.
“We went there for spring training, but there was more to it than that. It was the culture part of things, and we definitely got that,” Rogers said. “Everything we expected to get out of it, we got more.”