Words and photos: Bud Schmeling with Chris Isenberg
I believe that there exists a location, governed by latitude and longitude, that speaks to, inspires, and informs every one of us. For me, that place is Cuba. I’ve been a sucker for Cuba for as long as I can recall. Hemingway, rum, baseball, casinos, gangsters, dashing rebels, salsa…shall I continue? From the moment I first touched down at José Martí International Airport in the summer of 1995, it’s been a full-blown love affair that has seen me return more than ten times.
Undoubtedly, the most remarkable of my visits took place in the autumn of 2000. Chris Isenberg (my great friend and the mad genius behind the NYC apparel company No Mas) and I packed our camcorders, notebooks, cameras, and third-grade level Spanish and set out after some big-game journalism. We were in pursuit of a story that was yet to be defined. All we knew was that it involved baseball and would more than likely require some methods that would be frowned upon. We cared very little.
There was even more than the usual political brouhaha taking place on the island at that time. The cherubic Elian Gonzalez had recently been abducted by his hysterical relatives in South Florida. The pitching Hernández brothers, Liván and Orlando “El Duque,” had both defected and were making major contributions to their teams, the Marlins and the Yankees, respectively. Most significantly, the tiny nation was still in the throes of the “special period”; since the collapse of the Soviet Union, an already grim economic situation had turned downright desperate. Given these circumstances, suspicion was amped up in Cuba, and two bumbling gringo periodistas hanging around ball players and asking questions definitely did not go unnoticed.
We decided to focus our efforts on the western province of Pinar del Río, the third largest province in Cuba and the fertile epicenter of the country’s legendary tobacco industry. More importantly, its baseball team, the Vegueros (cigar makers), was a perennial powerhouse whose lineup was bursting with the game’s brightest stars—José Contreras, Yobal Dueñas, and the sublimely gifted third baseman, Omar Linares. Linares’ exploits on the diamond are a thing of legend and have made him the target of many a US scout. Aside from being the greatest player of the modern age (lifetime batting average a staggering .368) he is also a hardened socialist and a dedicated defender of the Revolution. It is reported that Linares turned down several lucrative offers from MLB, ranging from two to seven million. Granted, it’s not A-Rod loot, but significant if you consider that the best players in Cuba were taking home about 40 bucks a month. Following in the footsteps of his commie confederate Teofilo Stevenson, the most decorated boxer in Cuban history, Linares rebuffed the offers, stating, “What is a few million dollars compared to the love of 11 million people?”
When we arrived in Pinar, we learned that the team had an off day and the players were sequestered in the spectacularly drab Hotel Pinar before departing to the Isle of Youth for a three-game series. We also learned that we had no chance of getting close to Mr. Linares. We were undeterred and of the mindset that if we got away from the scrutiny of the city, we’d have a better chance of bagging our prey. We booked our passage aboard a Russian hydrofoil and followed the team on the road. What happened on that trip was both exhilarating and vexing. We managed to gain access to what most hardened journalists could only dream of. When it was all over, we might not have gotten Linares, but we did get our story.
We returned to Pinar to discover that the authorities had been on to us the whole time. We were apprehended and interrogated. They believed that we were there doing the bidding of a US team and arranging future defections. The only person willing to sit down with us upon returning to Pinar was none other than the team’s manager and hall of famer Alfonso Urquiola. He provided us with a spirited 30-minute interview, wearing nothing but his jockey shorts. Immediately following the interview, we packed up and got the hell out of there.
The pictures that follow are of the people and places in Cuba that made our story possible. I hope this finds them well.
You don’t need no stinkin’ press pass to access the players on the Isle of Youth. This is starting catcher and Yobal’s best friend Yovani Madera. Señor Madera knows his way around the rumatorium. One of the last men standing the previous night.
Yobal Dueñas was a gifted athlete and a mainstay on the national team. He was always considered to be a strong candidate to defect, and was closely monitored by the authorities. In 2004, at the advanced baseball age of 32, he did defect. The Yankees signed him for $60,000, but he never got past AAA. He actually came out to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where we were coaching little league, and spent the afternoon with our team. Recently, he was arrested in South Carolina for grand larceny.
This stadium beats the hell out of some vapid bandbox off the interstate. The atmosphere was part religious festival, part bullfight. This bonsai stadium probably held about 4,000—every seat a luxury box. The boys from Pinar easily took this one, despite the fact that we plied them with enough Havana Club to fell eight Hemingways and got them home after 3 AM.
The amazing Fenway Park-style scoreboard at the stadium. These two gentlemen had been turning the numbers for a generation and one of them had a son playing on the team. I spent a few innings with them and they were the epitome of the insanely passionate and knowledgeable aficionados Cuba is famous for.
When you are the most famous and revered athlete in your country, you are afforded luxuries no one else enjoys. Those would include the only brand-new foreign car in your province, as well as a chauffeured motorcycle ride to an awaiting plane while the rest of your teammates wait for the slow boat back to the mainland. Linares was such a singular talent that there’s little doubt to the success he would have achieved in the States. For this man of steely principles, that was never an option.
It was here, in this glowing testament to Soviet architecture, that we conducted our now-infamous interview with team skipper Alfonso Urquiola. Occasionally, when the team performed well, they were given perks. One of those perks would be a night at the Hotel Pinar del Río, a dank and oppressive place. When they won the championship a few years back, each player received a chicken.
This is Alfonso Urquiola. Hall of famer, and manager of both Pinar as well as the national team. Our hastily arranged interview took place in his hotel room back in Pinar. Halfway through a surprisingly candid conversation, there began a persistent and frightening pounding on the door. The coach didn’t seem to notice, but a cold cloak of sweat covered my body. At the door was a visibly flabbergasted hotel manager demanding that we leave. With a most regal and knowing flick of the wrist, Urquiola dismissed the manager and the interview concluded. Immediately following this we were detained and interrogated for what seemed like hours. It was time to go.
It was later brought to our attention that as a result of this seamy photo, Urquiola was relieved of his duties as national team manager. He is presently coaching in Panama.