Mike Eizenberg runs a company licensed by the United States government to organize cultural and educational trips to Cuba. But last Saturday, the 65-year-old was at the plate on a softball field in Boston’s Jamaica Pond Park looking for a pitch he could hit.
Eizenberg smacked a high line drive that seemed like a sure extra-base shot until a lanky center fielder cruised into its path.
“He does that to me so many times,” Eizenberg said, laughing. “And he shades me way over to left and I think he’s giving me a lot of center field and all of a sudden he’s in right-center making a catch like that, time after time.”
The center fielder is Reinaldo Linares. He’s also 65 years old and at a distance, gracefully trolling the outfield, he looks half his age. Eizenberg lives in Wellesley, Massachuetts. Linares lives in Havana, Cuba. But they know each other’s softball tendencies well. That’s because with Eizenberg’s help, the Eastern Massachusetts Senior Softball Association has been sending teams to Cuba for annual exhibitions called “The Friendship Games.” The first four EMASS Softball teams visited Havana in 2009 and the meeting reminded Eizenberg of kids playing pickup.
Before that game, Cuban authorities allowed local musicians to play the U.S. and Cuban national anthems. That hadn’t happened in Cuba in 50 years. After three years of exhibitions, Eizenberg decided bringing the Cubans to the States was worth a try. He’s still amazed his Cuban friends made it.
“No one ever believed that it would be possible for them to come here. All of a sudden, magically, we received permission both from the U.S. government and the Cuban government for the players to come here,” Eizenberg said. “[The Cuban players] say that this proves that nothing is impossible. If this can happen, anything can happen.”
Linares and his teammates were doubtful about the plan.
“We said, ‘Oh, Mike are you sure?’ and he said, ‘Yes, yes. I’m going to invite you, all the team,” Linares said. “And now, we are here … I like it to be here.”
But Linares has been in the U.S. before. When he was a boy, his family moved to New York City because his father, Rogelio, played in the Negro Leagues.
“He came with all my family here in 1950. We came here to New York. We lived in Long Island. We returned to Cuba in 1959 [at the time] of the revolution in Cuba.”
And baseball runs in the family. Linares spent 11 years on the Cuban national team in his younger days. And several of his current teammates were elite baseball players who traveled to all sorts of places other than the U.S. to play for their country.
EMASS Softball player Les Gore says the Cubans and the Americans share a love of baseball and softball, but their sports resumes are a bit mismatched.
“The people playing here representing the U.S. and we’re talking about doctors, lawyers, plumbers. We’re just average guys who love to play softball,” Gore said. “But the Cubans, many of the people who play for the Cuban softball leagues were in their time probably some of the most prominent baseball players that the island has ever produced, so we’re playing against those people.”
Adrian Burgos, Jr. is a professor at the University of Illinois and an expert on Cuban baseball history. He says Cubans began playing baseball in the 19th century and even after diplomatic relations with the U.S. broke down, the Cuban leagues continued to produce some of the top talent anywhere.
“Cuba was the leading source of foreign talent to Major League Baseball in the 1950s,” Burgos said. “Cubans were not going to stop playing baseball just because the U.S. government and the Cuban government were no longer friends. So the quality was already in the pipeline.”
Tony Gonzales is 74 years old. In his prime, he was a top Cuban shortstop. In the 1960s some of his friends from home – like pitcher Luis Tiant – found their way to the U.S. to play in the Major Leagues. Gonzales says he came close during a tryout with the Giants in Puerto Rico in 1966.“It was when the San Franscisco Giants had Willie McCovey, Willie Mays, Juan Marichal. They didn’t have a shortstop and they wanted me,” Gonzalez said, speaking through a translator. “But for my family in Cuba it would have been very sad. My mother, my father, and my brothers. So I didn’t sign and I stayed in Cuba. Ever since I was little, I wanted to play in the major leagues because it’s the best.”
Last weekend, Gonzalez got a taste of the Major League limelight at Fenway Park. Before a game between the Boston Red Sox and the Kansas City Royals, he took the mound and threw out a ceremonial first pitch with his Cuban teammates and American friends standing behind him.
The Friendship Games are apolitical and both sides skip any discussion of international relations. Gary Siegel lives in Needham and has been on all three of EMASS Softball’s visits to the island nation.
“[The Cubans are] in awe of what we have here in America that we just take for granted that they just don’t have. You bring them into a supermarket, they’ve never seen such a thing. A whole aisle for cat food and dog food? It makes me realize how much I have and how grateful I am for everything that we have here.”
On Thursday, the Cuban players flew to Miami, where many of them will visit with family members, who they’ve never met or haven’t seen in decades. The teams will take the field again in Cuba, but Siegel says the game has a familiar sound at home or on the road.
“An out is an out and a ball is a ball. And it’s called the same in both languages. It’s either ‘uno out’ or ‘one out’, but it’s definitely an out,” Siegel said.
After splitting four games in Greater Boston, the rubber match is set for this November when EMASS Softball returns to Havana for more friendship games.