Talking Baseball in Ecuador

   Nobody gives a damn about baseball in Ecuador unless you are eating lunch at Café Hatuey.

     A small marble staircase divided the plaza from the upstairs Cuban restaurant with its shady balcony and high ceiling fans. It was a perfect redoubt for a dining-alone gringo wandering the colonial streets. One could watch the entire plaza from up here.

     The black bean soup experience would have been sufficient invitation.

     The waiter, a handsome Cuban of 24 years, brought me a Havana Club and a menu. I asked for his recommendation. He nodded. There was a soccer game on the television. I asked him who was ahead.

     “I don’t know,” he flinched. “I’m a baseball fan and it’s Opening Day up in America. Is that where you live?”

     I told him that I lived in Western Colorado and that despite the six-hour drive I made it to several Rockies’ games over the course of the season.

     “The Rockies, huh?” he said. “A streaky team, prone to injuries with questionable relief pitching and a strong fan base.”

     “You’ve done your homework,” I acknowledged, apologizing for my limited baseball jargon in Spanish.

     “Then let’s speak English,” he snapped saying he had learned my language from his old baseball coach named Adolfo Luque, who had enjoyed a brief career in the Big Leagues prior to the Revolution.

     “The food came out and we shared a feast of past Cuban players who had excelled it to the Majors. Tony Taylor, Luis Tiant, Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro accompanied my Fabada Asturiana (beef and bean stew), three tamales, a cup of black bean soup, plantains and fried yucca. Then he brought rhubarb pie and asked why a heated argument on the baseball field was called a rhubarb? 

     “I think it’s something like a catbird seat or the bull pen,” I said. “Most of those terms came straight from the lips of tobacco chewing bench jockeys waiting around for the next pitch. After a few seasons these words became the jargon on the diamond.”

     He said one of the cooks had met Hank Aaron in Miami after the Braves’ slugger had broken Ruth’s home run record. 

    “All three of the cooks are baseball fans. Come and meet them!”

     We walked into the kitchen and returned to speaking Spanish. I told the first cook that I too had met Aaron and that I had his autograph on the same score card with the signature of Pete Rose and Tony Perez.

     “Perez was a great one,” offered the second cook who was patiently monitoring the progress of a large pot of pintos. “He was one of the great players to escape Cuba after Castro. “He came to the United States along with Tony Oliva, Camilo Pacscual and Bert Campaneris. The Cuban government was not happy about this heralded exit from its socialist paradise.”

     “Castro was quite a pitcher too,” offered the third cook who wore a Yankees’ hat atop his baldhead. I saw him play in Santiago de Cuba while on the Las Barbas team where all the players wore a beard. He might have played pro ball except for politics. The Cleveland Indians were after him in the Fifties. He could hit too.”

     But what about Minnie Minoso?” chided the waiter. “How can we talk Cuban baseball players and not mention Minnie?”

     “And Sandy Amoros and Tito Fuentes and Cookie Rojas!” yelled the bean watcher from the corner of the kitchen.

     “What about Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro, and Orlando Pena,” chimed another cook.

     “Don’t forget Leo Cardenas,” I said and the kitchen went silent.

     “Wow,” said the waiter. You do know your baseball.”

     “I grew up in Southern Ohio” I admitted, “and Cardenas played shortstop for the Reds for fifteen years.”

     Now that I had the floor, I asked them if they thought Fidel Castro would have been a better baseball player than a President.

     They all laughed, 

     “Fidel is Fidel,” one said. “The United States is the United States. Castro is eating well even if the rest of us on the island are not. So much for punishing the Communist Party with the Great Cuban Embargo.”

     All of the cooks had family back in Cuba and they missed them very much but opportunity was better in Ecuador.

     “If you didn’t go along with party ideas there was no future in Cuba,” frowned one.

     “My daughter is a doctor in Havana and barely makes enough to survive, said another.

     “My son is twelve,” offered the waiter. “He’s the best hitter ever to come out of Trinidad (Cuba). I hope some day that he can come to the United States and play for the New York Yankees. He stands proud at the plate and waits for that big, fat pitch.”

     Everyone smiled and nodded in agreement.

     The restaurant was filling up. The owner stuck his head in the kitchen and frowned at his employees then smiled at me since I was spending money. I returned to my table. The lights are coming on in the plaza.

Melvin B. Toole



Filed Under: Fractured Opinion


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