In the few last games of this year’s baseball season for the Industriales baseball team (one of the squads that represents the capital city in the National Baseball Series), I recognized that one of the players was my ex-brother-in-law.
He came in as a relief pitcher in a game in which the Industriales was losing. I had never gotten along well with him, but it made me happy to see that he had realized his dream of making it onto the capital’s “big blue team.”
Seeing him in the game made me remember the stories that his sister used to tell me about how difficult it had been on the family to finance his baseball training when he was a boy.
“Every year my stepfather has to buy him a pair of spiked shoes, and those go for nearly $60 dollars! By the end of the season the shoes are all beaten up,” she once said.
“But in the end your family can buy them,” I remember responding to her.
She understood my observation; I know because a few days after making it she was telling me about the hardships that affected her brother’s friends. Her family is middle class, which she was vaguely aware of, which is why she began getting interested in the difficulties of other athletes from disadvantaged families.
The comments went from being isolated remarks to a flood of information about social inequalities in Cuba.
I met a tremendously talented boy from Holguin who didn’t have clothes to travel to the shortlist rounds set to be held in the capital in preparation for an international tournament. Through a collection that was organized among the parents of his comrades from Holguin, he was able to go on the trip.
He stood out in the selection process and was chosen to travel to a competition that would be held in Canada. Again the boy’s initial hopes were frustrated; he didn’t have the means to cover his costs for the trip. But once again a collection was taken up among the parents. Talent, solidarity and luck converged so that economic disadvantages weren’t decisive at that moment.
Notwithstanding, where’s that Holguin baseball player now? Given the poor quality and the need for talent on the team in Holguín, I don’t believe that the lack of opportunity is the reason for his absence. Nor is it possible that his talent disappeared overnight. What happens is that continued assistance couldn’t carry him all the way to the adult provincial teams.
To make it as a baseball player demands major economic sacrifices by the families of young Cubans. Only a few of those families are able to assist economically over the 10 years of high-performance sports training, meaning that talent alone is no longer enough to make it to the Cuban big leagues.
Tonito, my ex-brother-in-law, was able to build on his talent and his effort with the resources his father possessed. His former buddy is possibly watching him, sitting around at home with a bit of envy, remembering that difficult moment when his mother couldn’t continue paying for his uniforms, and when the solidary assistance of close friends went from being a real contribution to something impossible over the long run.
Whenever I watch teams of little league baseball players practicing in public, I recall how expensive it is to pay for a full uniform. More than once I’ve noticed the shoes and gloves of players, and I immediately notice the visible differences.
A few will have cleated baseball shoes that cost $120 dollars, some will have $60 pairs like those of my former brother-in-law, and others will be wearing super-cheap Chinese knockoffs. But I’ll always see one or another kid who appears vastly different from the majority, one who’s outside the context. His shoes won’t be the ones required, and his glove will be one that’s been more than just repaired.
I wonder if their destinies will be similar to that of the Holguin boy. That’s why I always take a close look at their faces with the naive hope of being able to recognize them should they ever make it to a provincial team of the Cuban major league. I cling to the hope that a complete and good quality uniform are not an absolute necessity for advancement in the game.