A Red Sox fan talking up Castillo in Cuba


My first visit to Cuba was as a 12-year-old in 1956. My parents took me to Havana via boat from Miami so they could enjoy the rollicking atmosphere of Havana. Gambling, high end and low end entertainment, bargain shopping – haggling expected – and the relaxed atmosphere. Now I had the opportunity to return almost 60 years later.

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Before the talent explosion in the Dominican Republic the significant hotbed for Caribbean baseball was Cuba. The major league rosters had Cuban players for decades – or, at least, white Cuban players. That, of course, expanded after Jackie Robinson.

Cuba was long a collection point for talent in their winter league as players from the states and the Caribbean would flock to Cuba for the relaxing tropical setting, the notorious fans that could put soccer hooligans to shame and, most importantly, to pick up some extra money. Why have a part-time job when you could play baseball?

Unlike the states prior to baseball integration the teams did not limit a player based on color. White and Black players who were separated in the states could be on the same team. This was an actuality throughout winter league baseball from Venezuela to Mexico.

Cuba was also home to the famed Havana Sugar Kings that played in the International League for several seasons before they left Castro’s Cuba for New Jersey. The “Kings” also had a history before Triple-A as the Havana Cubans in Double-A baseball.

Our visit to Cuba was for “educational” and “cultural” purposes since Americans cannot be considered tourist. After landing in Cienfuegos, home of the Elefantes de Cienfuegos, we breezed through the entry process and that means eight days in Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Trinidad and Havana. I will not discuss the trip details, but will concentrate on the anecdotal – conversations and exchanges with Cuban baseball fans – especially regarding Rusney Castillo.

Cubans are fully aware that MLB is a world stage with the best of the best. It is a sense of national and personal pride – if a player came from your team – to admire the accomplishments of the Cubans. Fans know that Castillo received 72.5M and that figure, in a country with a controlled economy, is staggering.

In Cienfuegos we stayed for four nights at the Jagur Hotel – built by Myer Lansky – and the ballpark was about one mile away. Out bus driver was an ardent baseball fan with impeccable English and that was a blessing since my Spanish is quite limited – baños is, to me, the most important word.

A trip to the ballpark was a must and since this was his home town, entry was no problem since he knew everyone in a city of 200,000. The park is well-lit and the infield is MLB quality. That apparently is standard throughout Cuban baseball – quality parks.

The stadiums I saw (three) had exceptional lighting and grounds. The seating at the Grand Stadium in Havana is 55,000. Other stadiums are smaller and can be compared to those of a Triple-A franchise with, quite naturally, no luxury boxes seating. For a more detailed view of Cuban parks this link will provide a great profile

With my Castillo and Tiant jerseys I certainly attracted a number of Cubans who just wanted to talk baseball. What came across is their perception of Castillo – who most considered superior to Jose Abreu and equal to Yasiel Puig who were both Elephantes. Castillo was a Tiger with the Tigres de Ciego de Avila. Cubans – like Americans – have loyalties to the home or provincial team, but also have a high regard for opposition talent.

What also surprised is the number of fans wondering why the Red Sox signed Pablo Sandoval when Castillo can play third. Cuban’s place a value on a player with versatility and multiple “tools” – Brock Holt would be worshiped.

When I was in Cuba, Castillo was on the sidelines – injured in his third game in Pawtucket attempt to corral a line drive. An injury that was the direct result of hustle. That started a slide that brought about the collective ire in Red Sox Nation over another bundle of money tossed away.

Castillo has been a success at every level, including a brief exposure with Boston last season. Castillo is a five tool player that is in his prime years and is now starting to display why the Red Sox opened the vault. To put a perspective on it one Cuban fan said “He’ll be as good as Dwight Evans.”

The Cubans are well versed in MLB since they get the games in both Spanish and English. The fans have developed a special interest in metrics and their players are followed intensely.

The recent thaw in relations has certainly raised two points of fan interest. A minor league team in Havana and the best of all possibilities a major league team in Havana. But even back in 1999 the Cuban National Team did play an exhibition against the Orioles and Cuban is a monster in world play.

For a look at Boston’s Cuban connect here is an article I wrote last season when Boston traded for Yoenis Cespedes.

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