The Week That Baseball Won

It was a lot to ask, inviting middle-aged men to get in shape for a béisbol barnstorming tour against former professional players. But this was Amherst—and Cuba.

Full team

The players spanned the classes of 1962 to 2004. Most had not played since college. Back row: Mike Levy ’93, Larry De Respino ’82, Erich Wefing ’89, Whit Griffinger ’00, Mike Thaxton ’87, David Lawrence ’62, Mark Manning ’80. Front row:  Ben Gundersheimer ’89, Brandon Cody ’04, Rob Born ’90, David DeVellis ’94, Mitch Edelson ’87, John Hereford ’87, Mayo  Noerdlinger ’89.

One of Pinar del Rio's finest pitchers of all time is staring down at Erich Wefing ’89 as he steps into the batter’s box at EstadioViñales in the western part of Cuba. At 6-foot-5 with a lanky frame, Porfirio Pérez was an intimidating presence on the mound in the 1970s, when he pitched for the Forestales in Cuba’s top baseball league. Had he been born in the United States, he likely would have been a major leaguer.

Wefing digs in, sweat dripping off his brow in the stifling tobacco-country humidity. Pérez is almost regal as he winds up to pitch with his long arms and legs synchronized in perfect balance. He hides the baseball well into his delivery, and the ball starts toward Wefing’s elbow with surprising velocity. As Wefing pulls his lead arm to his body to avoid getting hit, the ball darts back over the plate just before smacking the catcher’s glove.

The umpire emphatically shouts, “Huaaah!,” signifying a called strike. It is as good a slider as Wefing saw during his Amherst playing days more than 25 years ago. And Pérez is in his 60s. 

This February, a team of Amherst baseball alumni traveled to Cuba for a unique barnstorming tour, where we played five games against teams consisting of former Cuban professional players. Rob Born ’90 came up with the idea. Having traveled to Cuba twice to play organized baseball, he reached out to five former teammates, who in turn each reached out to five additional teammates, sometimes from different graduating classes, and so on until we achieved critical mass across decades of Amherst baseball players. Inviting middle-aged men to get in shape and devote a week to playing serious baseball is a big ask. But Cuba, with its forbidden-fruit mystique and storied place in baseball history? Well, that was an alluring and altogether different proposition. After two years of navigating the Kafkaesque Cuban sports bureaucracy, visas were finally secured and games and guides arranged through Cuba’s National Institute of Sport, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER). 

Baseball action
John Hereford rediscovers his form against the Matanzas Cocodrilos.

In 1866, seven years after Amherst defeated Williams in the first intercollegiate baseball game, American sailors introduced baseball to Cuba. Since then, baseball has become a central symbol of Cuban national pride. Cubans live, eat and breathe the game. And they are good. Very good. 

The Cubans approach the game with a wonderful Latin flair and gusto. But they are technicians, and highly disciplined as well, a result of INDER, the Soviet-inspired government athletics institution that systematically trains and funnels promising youths up to Cuba’s version of the major leagues, Serie Nacional de Béisbol. Cuba’s success in international play is legendary. In the 1990s the national team compiled a stunning 152-game winning streak. Cuba won nine consecutive World Cup titles from 1984 to 2005 and has claimed three gold medals and two silver medals in the five Olympics since baseball was added to the games in 1992. 

Several of the Cuban players responsible for that extraordinary record are our opponents for the week.

The connective tissue among Amherst baseball players is strong, in large measure because of the shared experience of having played for Bill Thurston, one of the most exacting and successful college baseball coaches of his era. Our team is composed of former players from the classes of 1962 to 2004 and, with a few exceptions, we have not played baseball at any level since college. 

The prospect of playing against former professionals and the fear of getting embarrassed in front of former teammates provide ample incentive to get in baseball shape prior to the tour. Skills have eroded, some beyond reclamation (pitching velocity), but others are reawakened (hitting and fielding) with practice and patience. In the winter months leading up to our departure, several of us frequent batting cages for the first time in decades, giving us a chance to interact with younger players who are both amused by and amazingly supportive of our quest to regain a level of baseball proficiency. 

Many of us commit to the trip as a means of marking our entry to middle age. The notion of traveling to Cuba to reunite with former college teammates and play competitive baseball for the first time in 25 years is appealing on multiple fronts. It represents a new life experience, a physical challenge that encourages goal-oriented training and a chance to reconnect with some treasured old teammates and friends. Indeed, the trip seems to address all of the essential conclusions of the seminal Harvard longitudinal study on aging and happiness: keep it fresh, remain physically active and stay socially connected. But we are not here to get embarrassed either. Our demanding college coach insisted that the game be played right, and the burden of those expectations has not faded much in 30 years. We take the training seriously, and it resurrects latent Amherst Baseball IQ and muscle memory. Because we are older, we get injured while training. But the preparation pays off. And when we take the field in Cuba, we are not a lame fantasy-camp team. We can play.

Just not like the Cubans. 

Cuban team
The Matanzas team featured three formeer Olympians, including catcher Juan Manrique (foreground) and outfielder Lázaro Junco (fifth from front).

During our tour, we play two games in Viñales, one in Guanajay, one in Matanzas and one in Mayabeque. Some of these venues are not frequented often by outside visitors. The rural playing fields are beautifully maintained, and the grandstands of the stately if slightly crumbling stadiums hold boisterous local crowds. In two of the games, the locals fly both the Cuban flag and the American flag in center field and play our respective national anthems at the outset. In the smaller venues, the nearby schools are let out to allow the students to attend the games. Everyone is curious about the team from a place called Amherst. 

While we hold a lead at times in each of the five games, and all but one game is close in the end, it quickly becomes clear that the Cubans are playing these games like a bullfight—and we are the bull. We jump out to a lead, scoring runs off their marginal pitchers, some of whom are pushing 70 years old. They follow with a recently retired professional pitcher, who is effectively unhittable, and he shuts us down. Back and forth until the bottom of the ninth, where we are likely facing a former national team member or Olympian, armed with a metal bat, and now fully focused with the game on the line. Even when it’s inevitable, the Cubans have a flair for the dramatic win. The final record for the Amherst squad: 0-4-1.

On the field, the Cuban players are cagey and competitive, laughing and hustling at the same time, with a constant rapid chatter that tests even the most fluent Spanish speakers on the Amherst squad. 

After the games, we get to know some of the opposing players better over dinner—and way better over bottles of rum. We learn about their impressive baseball accomplishments. Some of them would have been Hall of Famers had they been allowed to play professionally in the United States. Lázaro Junco, who homered off us in the third game, is the number-two career home-run leader in Cuban baseball history, with more than 400. If not for the cash-starved Cuban government’s sale of his baseball services to a Japanese team late in his career, he would hold the country’s all-time home-run title.

The Amherst team
To Hereford, the notion of reuniting with college teammates and playing competitively for the first time in decades appealed on many fronts.

A few of the players cautiously share with us some of the realities of life under Castro. One player comments, “Fidel proporciona todo excepto el desayuno, el almuerzo y la cena” (“Fidel provides everything except breakfast, lunch and dinner”). We learn that the average salary in Cuba is about $20 per month and that taxi drivers often earn more than doctors and lawyers because they receive tourist tips. And we learn that despite the glaring disparity in our abilities and achievements and circumstances, we all share a love for the game and a hope for a brighter future.

Other experiences are equally memorable. After a morning game in Viñales, we load our bus with duffel bags of donated Little League baseball gear from our respective hometowns and drive farther into the countryside. After an hour, we stumble upon a remote, picturesque village called Pons. It’s set amidst expansive tobacco fields and steep-sided limestone hills called mogotes. In the heart of the village, we find a stunningly beautiful baseball field with a richly colored red dirt infield and a perfectly imperfect white picket fence. Despite the obvious poverty in the area, the locals have clearly sacrificed to create and maintain the field. 

Minutes after we exit the bus, several children come over to meet us. The crowd grows rapidly when the donated baseball gear comes out. An informal game follows as the children are eager to test out their new equipment. We laugh at what these Cuban kids would do to our children’s Little League teams. Even the 9-year-olds have long, elegant batting strokes, and they swing hard at everything. We drive away at sunset wondering if some future baseball superstar will someday emerge from this remote Field of Dreams.

One afternoon in Havana, we break up into small groups and wander through back streets. The music, the architecture, the dance and, of course, the Cuban people all contribute to a magical mosaic: pulsing salsa in alleyways; passionate sports debates on sidewalks; kids playing stickball in the streets; and the smell of freshly cooked rice, beans and plantains coming from the home restaurants known as paladares. The crumbling façades and 1950s-model Buicks and Chevys create an authentic charm. But this is a poor and, in many ways, dysfunctional place. The half-finished infrastructure projects, abruptly halted following the Soviet Union’s collapse, provide stark symbols of Cuba’s continuing struggles. 

On our way to the airport on the final day, we are exhausted and banged up and humbled by our collective good fortune to have remained fit enough to undertake this trip. Our guide, Elias, who had enjoyed watching us compete against some of his favorite Cuban baseball idols, informed us that Cuban national radio had just reported that a “master class team of baseball players from a university in America” had played a series of competitive games against former Serie Nacional deBéisbol players. 

Elias was quick to point out that the broadcast had graciously not provided the final record of our tour. Then he paused for a moment, smiled broadly and proclaimed, “You see, my friends, no particular team won this week. It was baseball that won.” 


 

Rob Born ’90 is vice president of corporate development at Vocera Communications, a health care IT provider. He lives in Santa Cruz, Calif. John Hereford ’87 is founder of Oak Leaf Energy Partners, a Denver-based renewable energy development firm. Combined, they played baseball at Amherst from 1984 to 1990, and in 2016.