Only A Game

With bats, balls and burgers, not protesters or politics, kids from Cuba and Baltimore speak the universal language of baseball

Cubans At Camden Yards

May 04, 1999

A reedy kid from Cuba, a shortstop, stuffed a bag of Snyder's barbecue potato chips inside his pinstriped jersey, making a little lump behind the cursive red letters that read Guanabacoa. The 10-year-old's lunch plate was already stacked with three hamburgers, two hot dogs (with mustard and relish), topped off with pretzels and plain chips.

Sitting on his glove, he ate like there was no tomorrow, only today. But the kid couldn't get the seal off his blue Powerade bottle. Help, his eyes said. An American gnawed off the seal for the Cuban, who said, three times, "thank you." And that was the end of his English. And that simple, ravenous meal yesterday on the ballfield at the Gilman School ended the most exotic pick-up baseball game he and about 50 others will ever experience.

Before the adult Cubans played the adult Orioles last night, 25 young Cuban athletes played against and alongside that many young ballplayers from Washington and Northwood Little League in Baltimore. The afternoon game of organized baseball was quite unorganized. But no one cared.

"Kids are kids. Baseball is baseball. No one has horns on either side," said Bob Hauptman of Washington, a key player in getting the kids together to play yesterday.

It was an accomplishment just to get every kid into the game and to get every wired youngster motionless for a classic front-row-kneel team picture. After a few scattered and battered innings, no one could swear who had won. "Nobody knows, nobody cares," said one coach, Chuck Cohen. The kids and their coaches were too busy chowing down on burgers and dogs.

There were no protesters at this game -- just Cuban and American moms and dads shoutin' and cheerin'. Orioles owner Peter Angelos was there. Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, too. But the players were oblivious; they focused on trying to get around on some good fastballs and baby curveballs. One Cuban pitcher even had a little changeup, the 10-year-old did.

It was all refreshingly apolitical. But as with every activity involving the visiting Cubans, no one seemed positive that the pick-up game at Gilman would actually happen. The kids had spent the whole morning at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, where the 300-member-plus Cuban contingent was staying. There was talk of a trip to the National Aquarium, but that could neither be confirmed nor denied.

The game at Gilman appeared to be "on" only after alert observers at the field noticed the presence of many little ballplayers speaking Spanish. This was deemed a clue.

Sure enough, parked behind a Frito Lay truck (later beaned by a foul ball), three charter buses had arrived bearing Cubans with very lively throwing arms. The weather was a typical Baltimore wintry spring day that got colder with each strike. A couple of the kids wore sweaters over their jerseys; their bodies seemed to shrink. As usual with a national story, the camera tripods on hand nearly outnumbered the humans.

"Ask him in Spanish if he's the eighth batter," bellowed coach Jim Mauro, who had brought a batch of his players up from Washington. And this, baseball fans, was as profound and definitive a statement one could make in the throes of managing one very unusual Little League game.

Mauro, a sweet walrus of a coach, had the pesky challenge of filling out a lineup comprised of two mixed-and-matched teams. Cuban kids played with and against the American kids. The Cubans, in fact, wore "Gilman Greyhounds" baseball caps, making them harder to spot. After watching a spell, one spectator muttered: "Which ones are the Cubans?"

The players tried out each other's bats. "Here, kid, try this one," Mauro said to one Cuban player wielding a bat nearly his height. "Little kid, big bat," Mauro said to no one. And he smiled. (He smiled a lot yesterday. Hey, it was fun.)

The Cuban and American kids also swapped glares and high fives. They stole bases on each other unmercifully. Off the field, they played tourist-friendly photographer, taking over a new friend's camera so he could be in his own souvenir portrait from Baltimore. The day was one long home movie (not to mention the presence of a Barry Levinson camera crew; word was he's documenting the Cuba-U.S. baseball event).

Through a translator, we discovered that mindless baseball questions translate quite nicely.

What do you think of the American players?

"Very tall," said Alain Auila, a 10-year-old boy from Havana. Stumped for another question, we brought out the heavy artillery: Have you ever heard of Cal Ripken?

"No."

Meanwhile, a Cuban kid was racing home after a wild pitch. He then bounded off the field and into the arms of his mom, another guest of the United States government and the Baltimore Orioles. Mom and son hugged and high-fived, and she looked dead into our eyes and smiled uncontrollably. We didn't need to speak.

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