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The boys play at the eastern end of Antonio Maceo Park across from the Malecón, the hundred-year-old esplanade that hems five miles of Cuban coastline. On one particular day this past February, Wanderley Cutiño Gutiérrez and his friends were four innings deep and two runs down into their third game of the afternoon.
“It’s always been around,” Gutiérrez said while on deck. “I don’t know when it started. All the older kids played before us and my father played, too.”
Gutiérrez is 29 years old, but his slender face and wispy facial hair make him look like a kid in high school. He lives around the block from the game he and his teammates inherited. “This game is called taco,” Gutiérrez said as he walked up to bat. “This is a Cuban game.”
Whether this Cuban iteration of stickball was introduced to the island by its neighbor to the north in the early 20th century, or the game is a natural consequence of the concrete confines of metropolitan architecture is unclear. But the game is an urban heirloom that vanished from five boroughs some time ago.
In its prime, nearly every block in every neighborhood in New York had a team. The game was part of the landscape of being young in the city, a natural alternative to adolescent boys without the suburban privilege of Little League and grassy fields. And somehow it existed without a central governing force; there were no umpires and rules varied from block to block. When and why it disappeared depends on which generation of New Yorker you ask.
“Kids nowadays are busy doing other stuff,” said Vido Creales, president of the New York Emperors Stickball League. “They don’t get to exercise their imagination they way we had to. We didn’t have video games and the internet.” Creales, who is 38 and grew up playing stickball on the streets of the Bronx, now organizes and participates in a league that tries to recapture youthful, summer essence. Based in the Bronx, the league organizes teams from around the tri-state area and puts the results online every year. They recreate the past with original spaldeens and broomstick bats, but cannot fully emulate the rebellious spontaneity of the sport—for starters, they need a permit to play in the streets. But stickball in Havana retains the game’s feral ingenuity.
The boys at Antonio Maceo Park have transfigured a rare empty space among apartment buildings into a field. Against the salt-white wall of a three-story residential building is a 1-foot by 1-foot strike zone painted in black tar that drips south, making it look like a Ralph Steadman painting. From the barred windows of the building, old men in shadows look out at the young boys playing and shout at them, giving them water and counsel. Foul lines are demarcated by an unused telephone pole in left field and a large granite rock in right.
The rules are familiar, too. The street game adheres to the nine-inning rule, but disagreements about the correct inning occasionally erupt. If the pitch lands within the box, the batter is out. A single strike counts as three. The pitcher still gets four balls, however, before the batter gets a base. If the batter connects, three outfielders—one in left, one in right and the centerfielder across the street stationed on the roundabout—make chase after the struck ball. Like any game of baseball there are three bases. Unlike the New York game that used sewer grates and manholes as bases, the Cuban version uses cardboard scraps and flattened six-pack cartons. But the runners never run. Instead, after the ball is struck, the batter marches briskly to the base like a tracksuit-wearing, middle-aged power walker. This gives the outfield a chance to tag out and perhaps avoid getting hit by the 1957 Chevy Bel Airs that have been converted into city taxis.
After half a century’s worth of Cuban embargo, even the most basic necessities are difficult to come by, so balls and bats are improvised. Bats tend to be broom handles, or, in the case of this game, a table leg that was impressively shaped into a Louisville Slugger. The ball is homemade.
“What you do is this: find a rock about this size,” said Eric Manuel Ponce Villalón, 21, who made the universal OK sign with his left hand. “Then you wrap the rock in paper so that it’s a little soft.” Villalón, whose broad shoulders were exaggerated by a knock-off Polo shirt two sizes too small, explained that the players would then wind sports medicine tape—inexpensive and abundant because medical supplies are government subsidized—around the ball. The same tape is used for the bat’s grip and the players’ impossibly worn shoes. The ball ends up the size and shape of a plum.
On this day, a wind pushed onshore and waves crashed against the Malecón, causing sea water to shoot high into the air and spill over the esplanade’s walls like a sloshing soup bowl. Pedestrians and people in cars would occasionally stop to watch the boys, who would then ham it up, adding an extra flair to their swings and pitches.
“From 2 pm until the sun goes down,” said Gutiérrez, “we play every day, all year.”
Gutiérrez walked to the pitcher’s mound, indicated by a torn flap of Havana Club Rum packaging with half a brick on top. It was the bottom of the ninth and the game was tied. He pulled his hat low to his eyes, wound up and threw the ball toward the batter, Villalón. Villalón let a few wayward balls pass before he swung. Even though the ball was homemade, when it met the center of the bat it still emitted a satisfying crack. The ball went high and deep into left field where a small elderly woman walked, paying little mind to the shouting boys. The ball landed right in front of her feet, startling her slightly—a homerun for sure. His teammates cried out for joy as Villalón walked the bases, clasping his two hands and triumphantly raising them above his head in the timeless gesture of all the boys of summer.
June 2014 This article formed part of the june 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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