Sunday, April 20, 2014

Hurricane preaches to crowd

By Tom Hawthorn

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Beisbol' pilgrimage takes Monte Irvin back to Cuba

By Tom Hawthorn
The Vancouver Sun, March 26, 2005


The aged tourist hobbled down the steps of an air- conditioned bus before slumping into a wheelchair. His meaty fists squeezed a cane, which rested against knees scarred by surgery.
The great Monte Irvin was on a baseball pilgrimage to a land he had not seen in 55 years.
When last here, his hands gripped a bat, not a cane. Irvin was imported from the Negro Leagues in 1947 for the Cuban capital's legendary Almendares team. The hard-hitting outfielder was delighted to pursue his trade in a land where he would be (mostly) judged by the grace of his fielding and the power of his hitting, not by the colour of his skin.
Irvin, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, was returning to Cuba as part of a group of fanaticos de beisbol. The tour, led by Kit Krieger of Vancouver, spent seven days on the island attending ball games and visiting historic baseball sites. With Irvin in our lineup, the end of the week promised a highlight — Irvin's return to Estadio Latinoamericano, the ball park where he was once hailed as a god.
While most tourists come to Cuba in search of sun and sand, the closest our group got to a beach was the dirt around home plate.
Baseball is to Cuba as hockey is to Canada. The game is as much a part of everyday life as music and shortages.
Children play stickball on crowded barrio streets with bottle caps as balls and broom handles as bats. On our first day in the capital, an impromptu game took place beside our hotel, Armadores de Santander, a converted mansion across the street from the docks. Home plate was a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk of Calle Luz and first base was a ramshackle Chevy parked at the curb across the street.
Later, I would admire boys darting after flyballs among the many monuments on the lawns of the Capitolo, the replica of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The batters needed to hit line drives over the pitcher's head to keep the ball in play — pulling the ball, or slashing it to the opposite field would endanger passing traffic and risk losing the precious ball. Incredibly, batter after batter struck line drives to centre, perhaps explaining Cuba's extraordinary success at a game imported by American workers and sailors more than a century ago.
By visiting the island, Irvin, at 85, was returning to a place where he spent "two of the happiest years of my life." For decades, the island nation seemed inaccessible because of the feud between his native United States and Cuba under Fidel Castro. It took a Canadian to end his hiatus.
Krieger is the former president of the B.C. Teachers Federation and the older brother of the Province's editorial cartoonist. He is also a baseball fanatic, blessed with an encyclopedic knowledge of the game's rich history.
In the late 1960s, with his hair as wild as one of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Krieger worked as a clubhouse attendant for the Vancouver Mounties. He even convinced management to let him be the starting pitcher for the final game of the 1968 season. To the amazement of his teammates, he gave up only one run in three innings of work. Then, he had to return to the clubhouse to clean up the dirty uniforms of the batters he had retired.
Krieger's annual visits, under the auspices of his Cubaball Tours, are held in February or March, as the National Series regular season comes to an end and playoffs begin. Sixteen teams are divided into Eastern and Western zones. Each of Cuba's 14 provinces has a team, as does the Isla de la Juventud, a Caribbean archipelago to the south of the island of Cuba. The final team is Industriales, the New York Yankees of Cuban baseball, a team based in the capital that often wins the national championship and which every other team wants to beat.
Most players wear the uniforms of their home province. (Imagine Wayne Gretzky as a Maple Leaf and Joe Sakic as a Canuck.) The system creates intense rivalries, often expressed by the crowd in crude but funny chants and songs about the failings of visiting teams.
In an age where professional baseball players are remote, the Cuban players are surprisingly approachable, so much so that they will sidle up to the stands for a conversation even as a game is being played.
Our first road trip took us west from the capital to the picturesque Valle de Vinales, where we played catch in front of a cliffside mural so poor in its execution as to be laughable. (The artist was an understudy to the brilliant Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera; perhaps he didn't study enough.) After that, we visited a tobacco farm before stopping for a pre-game coffee at the Hotel Pinar del Rio.
Refreshed and caffeinated, I wandered from the lobby bar and stumbled across a modest display tucked behind a stairwell. Plaques, posters and baseballs were housed without guard in glass cabinets, a baseball hall of fame for Pinar del Rio province.
After checking out the display, we counted two dozen young men in uniform sprawled over the lobby furniture. The visiting team was waiting for a bus to Estadio Capitan San Luis.
The ball park boasts natural grass, of course, with wooden seats and benches in a concrete grandstand. Admission for Cubans costs one, two or three pesos (for box seats, grandstand benches, and the bleachers). Foreigners pay with Convertible Pesos, meaning the cost is about $1.25, $2.50 or $3.75 (all figures Canadian), which is less even than a centre-field bleacher seat (about $8.75 US) at Safeco Field in Seattle, or even a general admission ticket ($8 Cdn) to Nat Bailey Stadium in Vancouver.
The estadio was notable for what it lacked: No souvenir vendors, no exploding scoreboard, no recorded music playing between pitches. A revolutionary slogan was painted on the outfield wall where advertising would have been in North America.
A vendor whose fist was filled with white paper cones cried, "Mani! Mani!" It sounded like "Money! Money!" He was selling roasted peanuts and this delicious treat costs peanuts.
A few days later, we sat in a dugout behind home plate at Estadio Jose Antonio Huelga in the eastern colonial city of Sancti Spiritus. A raucous young crowd seemed as interested in flirting with one another as watching a ball game. The park had its quirks: lighted foul poles and the inscription "HOME CLUB" painted in English over one of the player dugouts. The home team even had a costumed mascot, a yellow rooster, which at one point late in the game removed its head to peck at home plate.
One of the finer traditions of Cuban baseball comes after the fifth inning, as female attendants deliver a mid-game pick-me-up of coffee for the umpires.
Irvin did not join the tour group on the road trips, saying he had spent enough of his life riding a bus to far-off games. At 85, he had earned his rest in a city that had once welcomed him like a son.
Monford Merrill Irvin, who was the seventh of 11 children born to Alabama sharecroppers named Cupid and Mary Eliza, found in Havana a place where he could join whites on the baseball diamond as well as at the supper table.
He led Almendares to the 1948-49 Cuban championship and then to victory in the inaugural Caribbean World Series. (The Cubans spelled his family name as Irving, though Monte dropped the final letter to make it quicker to give autographs.) After those playoffs, at age 30, when his considerable skills had begun to erode, he was at last given a chance to play in the major leagues.
By then, he was a war veteran with nine seasons of professional baseball under his belt. He made the most of his belated opportunity, playing in two World Series for the New York Giants (losing in 1951, winning three years later), and coaxing a seven- season career from a body past its prime.
Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, his autograph and his business card now include the shorthand notation, "HoF 73."
On this overdue return, the American ball player was hailed everywhere as CompaƱero Monte.
On one sunny day, Irvin delivered a load of baseball equipment to a team of eager 10-year-olds. The boys blocked ground balls and ran out every hit, their training in the game's fundamentals unaffected by seeing on television the cynical antics of hotdogging millionaires in the major leagues.
The children had not heard of him, but eagerly listened to his translated plea to respect the game, obey their coaches, and to play hard but fair.
A highlight of the tour was the reunion of Irvin with 92-year- old Almendares teammate Conrado (Connie) Marrero, a cigar-chomping right-hander whose slider earned him five seasons in the major leagues. (The club's ruggedly handsome first baseman was Chuck Connors, who would go on to stardom as television's The Rifleman.) Marrero, who is known in his homeland as The Hillbilly, for having been born the son of a farmhand, is never without a cigar in his mouth. "Baseball in Cuba," he told his old teammate in Spanish, "is life itself."
Finally, Irvin was ready to return to the Estadio Latinoamericano, the temple of Cuban baseball. He told us a story about winning a refrigerator at the park after hitting a game-winning home run. He didn't have much use for it, as he was renting an apartment, so he happily sold the appliance for $100 to a fan after the game. At 85, Irvin's knees may be gone, but his memory remains as sharp as a line drive.
Beneath the grandstand, he admired a bust of Martin Dihigo, known in Cuba as El Inmortal, perhaps the greatest baseball player of all time, who retired in 1945 before the major leagues were integrated.
A mural on the wall included a portrait of Marrero, who is revered in his homeland.
Irvin hobbled out into the grandstand. As others fussed with his wheelchair, he quietly walked with his cane to the backstop behind home plate. He stared at a field he had last seen more than a half- century ago, where one of his many homers once earned him a refrigerator. He lifted his cane in both hands to take a swing at an imaginary pitch. He thought no one was watching.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Didn't you use to be… Doug Ault?

Doug Ault was the star of the Toronto Blue Jays' first game. I interviewed him for the Globe and Mail's "Where are they now?" column in 1988. Ault died in 2004, aged 54. (Toronto Star photographs.)