I used to play softball up at Maidstone Park with an eclectic group of men ranging in age from 20 to 70 and in talent from very to very little. I came up with the idea in the fall of 1998 that we would challenge every team who would put up $300 and match that and give it to charity. At the party after the tournament my buddy Tommy LaGrassa joked that we play winter ball in Havana.
I loved the idea. So I found out about a guide and flew to Cuba where I was met at the airport by my man in Havana, Amado Torrecilla Torres. He was diminutive in stature, but gargantuan in heart. On the cab ride to his apartment I remarked on how beautiful the city was.
“I wouldn’t know,” he responded.
“What do you mean?,” I asked.
“This is the only place I have ever been. I have nothing to compare it to.”
I told him my plan. He told me I was crazy.
That night we travelled to a barrio and pitched our idea to the manager of a Cuban team. We stood under a movie marquee for a John Ford movie. I remarked how odd it was that a film from the late 50’s was showing.
“The theater it closed. That sign hasn’t changed since the Revolution.”
Like the miraculously patched together American cars from that same decade that sputter around Havana the long since discredited Revolution still holds sway over this island frozen in time.
The coach agreed to set the game up at The Havana University field.
We met the next coach at a seafood restaurant the next day gazing out at the tragedy that is Fidel’s Cuba. I ordered one fish dish after another only to have the waitress shake her head.
“This is a seafood restaurant that does not serve fish,” I observed.
“Si señor, this is Cuba” gesturing at the sea.
“Why,” I asked.
There were only tankers in the harbor. If there were fishing boats they’d be sailing to Florida.
Over the next week we found four teams willing to play us after convincing them we were for real and had no political agenda. Without Amado I would never have persuaded them they were not going to get in trouble with the government (no one in Cuba wants to risk that), that we wanted to focus on something that united us.
A few months later 33 of us went to Cuba and played five good will games, beating the Baltimore Orioles game against the Cubans by a few weeks. We were covered in the New York Times and Sports Illustrated and had the experience of a lifetime. We hoisted beers and traded jerseys with the Cubans. Each team sang their national anthems and stood around a banner that read in Spanish and English “The forty year rain delay is over.”
We returned the next two years, forging friendships that endure to this day. I travelled over 30 times to Cuba over the next eight years. Amado was with me the whole time. We distributed humanitarian aid, brought in Taj Mahal to play at the Havana Jazz Festival and were it not for 9/11 would have brought a Broadway play there. Few people know but the Town of East Hampton is a sister city to the Havana suburb of La Playa. Amado helped me make these things possible.
I watched my friend endure the daily indignities the communist government subjects its people to. I watched the police throw us off a beach because Amado was with me. I watched him get ejected from a tourist hotel because he was Cuban. I got pulled over in cabs because he was with me. He could never attend any meeting with a Cuban official because he faced arrest fraternizing with me.
I remember delivering supplies to one government entity and the official asked if I could give him a lift, presuming him I had a normal cab. When he got in with Amado in our beat up car he was puzzled.
“Who is he?,” he demanded.
“He is a Cuban,” I answered.
On one of our sojourns we visited the sleepy then of Bayamo, renowned for the fact it’s 19th century residents had burned it to the ground rather than let it be captured by its 19th century Spanish colonial masters. There is (or was) an enormous digital clock that overlooks the town square. It flashes the same time, though most of the bulbs don’t work. Our guide told me it was a gift from the Soviets in the 1960s.
“How long has the clock been broken.,” I asked.
“I don’t know, it’s been that way for as long as I can remember.” My guide was in his 30s. All of Cuba has been waiting for someone to start that clock. Obama just did.
It took awhile but Amado and his girlfriend got out of Cuba. He would first end up spending six weeks in a tiny jail cell for having my cellphone. His father got 18 months in jail for having $2 in American dollars. His grandfather got seven years for possession of a joint. His family was thrown out of their home which was given to a policeman.
When a cop at J.F.K. told him that he could say what he wanted to say in America he knelt down and shouted “I hate Fidel Castro”. He told me he had wanted to shout that in public his whole life. Like most Cubans Amado loved America. After five years working at the Talkhouse he moved to Texas. He died last year but somewhere out there he is smiling.