double vision—photographing baseball in cuba

The easier it gets to travel to Cuba, the harder it becomes to find people, places and stories that don’t feel overly familiar. Steven Counts and Joseph Swide faced this challenge on separate pilgrimages to capture the island's national (and most photographed) pastime. Below is a selection of the images they each brought home, as well as the story of their journeys in their own words.


palmar de junco

photography & words by steven counts

Forty-five minutes. That's how long the charter flight from Tampa, Florida to Havana, Cuba would take. The plane was filled mainly with Cubans returning home with new bicycles and other gifts that are not available to buy on the island. The plane landed at José Martí International Airport. All the passengers exited the plane and walked down the steps directly onto the tarmac. Everyone breezed through customs except for me.
 
I traveled with a backpack filled with cameras, computer, hard drives — the Cuban officials held me at customs and immigration for an hour, while they asked questions and inspected the camera equipment. I sensed they were concerned about why an American photographer was there to take pictures of Cuban baseball players. The government is known to do whatever it takes to not let a player defect, especially their star players. Most are viewed as national heroes and a symbol of loyalty.
 
Cuban baseball has always been of interest to me, because it’s not covered much in the American sports media, and the Cuban players in Major League Baseball all have these wild, movie-like stories of how they escaped their homeland.
It’s common for foreign travelers to rent a bedroom in a local’s home instead of one of the few hotel options. At the first “casa particular” I stayed at, the family had a little boy, probably 10 years old, who played on a baseball team. He and his father were heading off to practice when I arrived, so I asked in broken Spanish if I could join them.
 
Their ball field was positioned just one block from the famous Malecon. The grass was well-worn, with art-deco buildings lining the streets in the background. It looked like the set for a movie. There were maybe 15 young kids practicing together. Their throwing and batting forms were impressive for their age. They were fielding ground balls hit rocketed their way by the coach, a former professional player.
 
The Industriales, one of the two professional teams in Havana, play at Estadio Latinoamericano, Cuba’s gem of a stadium. It can hold over 50,000 people, but it usually only brings a couple thousand fans to each game. It was once grand, but is now in disrepair. There are gaping holes in the cement stairs that lead to the nosebleed seats. Some bleacher rows were completely missing. But it was still a great place to watch a game. Cost of admission was one peso, which is basically less than a nickel. There are minimal entertainment distractions at a Cuban baseball game: no instant replay, no Jumbotron, no silly games for the fans in between innings. All the attention is on baseball.
 
Kids get free admission and there were many of them in attendance. The kids position themselves in foul territory, usually down the right field line, where they have a chance at snagging one of the many foul balls. They don’t get to keep the balls, they must throw them back on the field. They do it for the excitement. It makes them feel a part of the game.

The Industriales players didn’t really engage with fans, but when I traveled to the smaller towns, the players sought me out, waved me over to their dugout. As a photographer I thought, “Wow, this access is incredible!” That was not the case. They offered to sell jerseys, hats, baseballs for cash. This was another revenue stream for the players. From what I’ve heard, they earn between 30 and 80 dollars per month from the government. If they are fortunate enough to sell one of their uniforms for 30 bucks, they’ve basically doubled their monthly salary. Their sales pitch hustle was intense, yet it was understandable and I respect them for that.

Late one night in Havana, I was strolling along the Malecon and encountered a group of 10 or so journalism students. They were on a school trip from the University of Cincinnati — some photographers, some writers, all of them eager to discuss what it’s like to be a traveling freelance photographer. I offered to take a couple of them to Matanzas with me while I photographed the site of the very first baseball game played in Cuba, Palmar del Junco.

double-vision-cuba-003-001Most of the taxis in Cuba are classic American 1950s cars like Chevrolet Bel-Air and Ford Fairlane. Being from Detroit, it was nostalgic to see cars that were manufactured just miles from where I was raised.

Matanzas is about two hours east of Havana. I arrived at Estadio Victoria de Giron, where the Crocodiles play, purchased my ticket, and walked down to get a front row seat of the game. As soon as I sat down on the third base line, a middle-aged man tapped me on my shoulder and asked me where I was from. I told him New York. We immediately started talking baseball and the New York Yankees, particularly Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, an outstanding Cuban pitcher that defected in 1997. My new friend’s name was David and he was a baseball fanatic. He seemed to know every Cuban baseball statistic, like a sports almanac or something. He watched baseball all day, every day. He was the one who told me about Palmar de Junco, the stadium built in 1874, where the Matanzas team played their professional games until the late 1970s. He said, “Steven, if you’re shooting photos in Cuba, you have to go check out that stadium. It’s where the first baseball game in Cuba was ever played.”

A few days later, I met with David at Palmar de Junco. He offered to introduce me to former player named Felix Isasi, arguably the greatest second baseman in Cuban baseball history. Felix started and dominated for the Cuban National Team for over a decade, and won championships at the Pan American, Central American, and Caribbean Games. David exited the stadium and returned five minutes later with Felix. Felix’s smile was so joyous, I imagined it would brighten anyone’s day. The second thing I noticed about Felix was the size and strength of his hands. He had an iron grip. My Spanish isn’t great so we communicated in a slowed-down version with lots of hand gestures. I didn’t understand everything he was saying but it almost didn’t matter. We were both enjoying each other’s company as we talked baseball history. Due to the US–Cuban relations, Felix never had the chance to play Major League Baseball.

After our initial conversation, Felix invited us to his house down the street from Palmar de Junco. Neighbors waved at us we walked down the center of the road. From outside the house, “Turn Down For What” by Lil Jon was blaring on his sound system. The energy in his home was high. His wife was in the kitchen preparing dinner. Felix showed me his shrine of championship medals, memorabilia and his personal scrapbook from his playing days. It was filled with newspaper clippings and black and white photos of him in his athletic prime. I took a few photos and portraits all while simply trying to soak up the experience. I knew this was a special moment in my life. We said our goodbyes and he signed a baseball for me. I had nothing to give in return, but I promised to stop by on my next trip to Cuba.
 
Palmar de Junco is still active and is currently being used by the Matanzas junior team. During games, there’s a guy behind the scoreboard. The balls, the strikes, the outs—there’s a cube he’s rotating, keeping track of the pitch count, looking through holes in the wall to see what’s happening in the game.
 

 

isla de la juventud

photography & words by joseph swide

 

There aren’t a lot of reasons to go to Isla de la Juventud. The sixth largest island in the Caribbean, it isn’t an ugly place. It’s just a strange place, compared even to the rest of Cuba. The island is mostly unpopulated, and the biggest signs of development in its vast countryside are the concrete skeletons of the abandoned schools built back when Fidel Castro envisioned the island as an education hub for communist youth from around the globe. Today, foreigners are rare and tourism to the island is virtually nonexistent. There are beaches, but most of the more attractive ones are far from any towns and difficult to access, given the state of the island’s infrastructure.

 
It’s the kind of place that when you get back to Havana and tell people that you spent the last three weeks on La Isla, the only explanation they will believe is that you have a wife there that you’re not telling them about. What’s difficult to explain is that in addition to my affinity for the people and low-key pace of life, La Isla feels to me like a distilled version of what draws me to Cuba in general. Without Havana’s beautiful architecture or well-manicured 1950s cars, there isn’t as much to romanticize about La Isla and the experience of the place becomes more about just the strong sense of community and the real effects of isolation. And then somewhere in the middle of that is the island’s baseball team.
 
Despite being one of the smallest clubs in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, Los Piratas of Isla de la Juventud frequently compete at the top of the league. This is the club that produced Livan Hernandez, and, more recently, Raisel Iglesias, who defected in 2013 and currently pitches for the Cincinnati Reds. In the 2014-2015 season, La Isla made it all the way to championship series before losing in seven games to Ciego de Avila. But this season, the team has struggled after it lost the majority of its roster over the offseason. A coach put the number at 17. And while it’s difficult to confirm the exact number and circumstances of every player’s departure from the team, five La Isla players show up on the reported lists of 2015 defections –- which totaled over 150 by the end of the year, a record high. Another player, longtime star Michel Enriquez, was given legal permission by the Cuban government to play in Mexico.
 

La Isla’s roster and struggles this season reflect what’s happening on a broader scale throughout the Serie Nacional. Of the players left on the island, there are loyal veterans like 39-year-old pitcher Wilber Perez, who has represented both La Isla and the Cuban national team for the entirety of his career, and rides his bike home to his wife after each game. There are young players from other provinces like 18-year-old shortstop Yolbert Sanchez Zayas, who has represented Cuba at youth levels and was sent to La Isla from Havana to fill the roster and develop. Representative of the younger generation in Cuba, he has a Facebook profile and claims a girlfriend in The Bronx. And then there are players like 20-year-old center elder Julio Pablo Martinez, who was sent to La Isla from Guantanamo as a midseason reinforcement and is one of the most highly rated Major League prospects in Cuba.

 
On my last night on the island, which also happened to be the last day of the season before the league took a break for the Caribbean Series, I found myself in the hotel room that Martinez shared with catcher Felix Carbonell, also from Guantanamo. The team hotel is a mostly empty tourist hotel in an otherwise remote part of the island about an hour’s drive from the ballpark in Nueva Gerona. Back in their room, Martinez teased the older Carbonell for being clearly engrossed in an episode of Scooby Doo, before settling in to watch cartoons with him. After a short time, the channel was then changed to the news to find out the Cuban roster that would go to the Dominican Republic for the Caribbean Series. Martinez was not picked, though their La Isla teammate Perez was selected as a pitcher along with the usual names of Cuban baseball like Yulieski Gurriel and his younger brother, Lourdes (both of whom would shockingly defect from Cuba after the tournament).
 
Martinez then switched the channel again and the three of us –– a photographer from New York, a father of two from Guantanamo, and a 20-year-old who would be a multimillionaire if he were anywhere but Cuba –– sat on twin beds in an empty hotel in one of the most isolated parts of the country, drank from a case of orange soda provided by the team, and watched a dubbed movie in which Christian Bale, as Moses, leads the Hebrews out of Egypt.