serie nacional

words and photography: joseph swide


Lying in bed in the dark of 4 a.m., you can still hear the heavy bass from the outdoor sound system as the unmistakable rhythm of reggaeton pulses through a sea of drunken teenagers. At sunrise, it gives way to crowing roosters and sporadic air horns, followed by the low rumble of military transports powered by old Soviet engines, ferrying in truckloads of soldiers and police from all over the province. By noon, the reggaeton has returned and the airhorns have increased in volume, as thousands of people fill the space of a few blocks. Roving drumlines and their accompanying brass sections rear up, overpowering everything else around them.


The concrete light towers of Estadio Julio Antonio Mella––named for a founder of the Cuban Communist Party who later became the victim of one of Mexico City’s most infamous unsolved murders––rise above the low concrete houses at the end of the long avenue that stretches from the central square to the beltway encircling Las Tunas, a rural provincial capital in southeastern Cuba. Beginning in August of each year, the ballpark is the home of the Leñadores (“The Woodcutters”) who represent the Las Tunas province in the Serie Nacional, Cuba’s 16-team national baseball league. Throughout the season, the Serie Nacional has an unmistakably communist ticket policy of one peso (equivalent to four cents) for general admission to anywhere in the stadium, and self-styled mascots who inject the fan experience with spiritual practices based in Afro-Cuban religious traditions. By the time the Serie Nacional reaches its postseason, it becomes a completely immersive world that absolutely could not exist anywhere else.


Two hours remain before Game 6 of the championship series between Las Tunas and the defending champion Alazanes of Granma––the neighboring province to the south named for the yacht that landed on its shores in 1956 carrying 82 revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos. Members of Cuba’s most elite police force wear black berets, black combat boots, and billy clubs strapped to the backs of their flak jackets as they stand guard in front of the already locked and barricaded the gates to the stadium. Two hours earlier, what was said to be 17 buses from the Granma capital of Bayamo and three more from the town of Manzanillo arrived at noon for a four o’clock start. The Granma contingent immediately took over the entire first base side of the stadium, leaving the hometown Las Tunas fans locked out of their building. In a few hours, they’ll push their way in. Even metal barricades and steely-eyed commandos can’t keep a province from seeing its team compete in its first ever championship series. But for now, they’re stuck on the street, waving their tickets in vain.


On the street that runs along the first base side, long lines of street vendors sell cold beers, blend piña coladas, fry fritters of corn in large vats of oil to serve hot in corn husks with ketchup, and carve whole roast pigs into stacks of small sandwiches. The vacant lot on the side of the street opposite the stadium is ringed by temporary restaurants who have set up tables on the gravel with elegantly arranged tablecloths and folded napkins, upon which they serve plates of roast chicken or pork steak with rice and beans, some simple vegetables, and yucca. Behind the stage at one end of the lot, children ride rickety carousels and play inside a large caged trampoline. At night after the game, the vendors will keep working as the lot fills with partiers for a live concert on stage followed by a reggaeton DJ set until nearly sunrise.


The carnival began two weeks ago, when Las Tunas began its semifinal series against Industriales of Havana. The accompanying carnival in Granma’s capital of Bayamo began at the same time, with their semifinal series against top-seeded Matanzas. For whichever town claims the championship, the carnival will continue after the series for another two weeks of celebration. Both Las Tunas and Bayamo are rural towns surrounded by farmland, places where horse drawn carts are still a common method of transportation and where many residents grind through a daily struggle just to eat each day. But for about a month, these towns become the site of a rollicking party that thumps reggaeton until sunrise and sells cold beers all day and all night. Spend any time within the carnival, and baseball starts to feel like simply a worthy enough excuse.



The Serie Nacional goes back to 1961, when Fidel Castro abolished Cuba’s professional baseball league, along with all other professional sports, and installed a nationalized amateur athletic system. The vision for the new system was to create a globally competitive athletic program that would advertise the success and power of Castro’s socialist ideals on the international stage––a vision similar to that of the former Soviet Union’s athletic program. While Cuba has found international success in boxing, judo, volleyball, and other sports, the crown jewel of the communist Cuban athletic program has always been baseball.


For most of the last six decades, the Cuban national baseball team descended upon various tournaments throughout the world, often with striking all-red uniforms and a roster full of mysterious but fiercely competitive talent, to dominate the competition. Cuba has won 18 of the 25 Baseball World Cups that have been held since the 1959 revolution. The country has also won 11 gold medals in baseball—plus one silver and one bronze—at the 14 Pan American Games that have been held in that time. Baseball has been a part of the past five Olympics; Cuba has won three gold medals and two silver medals. Even when competing against top-level Major League talent, Cuba still took home the silver medal at the 2006 World Baseball Classic.


The success of the Cuban national team stems from the highly organized government-run baseball system that underlies it. The Serie Nacional is provincially based, with each of the 16 teams in the league representing each of Cuba’s 16 provinces. In each province, talented children are funneled up through local teams of each age group, where they receive intensive training through the system of regional athletic academies. Eventually, they will represent their respective provinces in the Serie Nacional. Top players are then selected from the Serie to represent Cuba at the international level. Apart from a few high profile defections like Industriales’ Orlando Hernandez and Pinar del Rio’s Jose Contreras, for much of the past five decades the government succeeded in keeping top talent in Cuba––often coercively––to serve the aims of the state. However, in the last few years that system has been eroding at a rapid pace.


When Barack Obama announced in December 2014 that he would begin the process of normalizing diplomatic relations, many Cubans rightfully guessed that their special immigration status to the United States would soon come to end, which led to an enormous boom in Cuban emigration. The number of Cuban immigrants arriving to the United States surged from 24,000 people in 2014 to 43,000 people in 2015. The Serie Nacional lost 150 players in 2015 alone. Most were not Major League prospects and many did not leave the country to pursue ambitions in professional baseball. However, in a 16-team league, 150 players works out to nearly 10 players per team, gutting the league of its depth.


By January 2016, a top young outfielder who had represented the Cuban national team at youth level told me in no uncertain terms that he thought the Serie Nacional was the worst baseball league in the Caribbean. Given that Cuba had won the 2015 Caribbean Series, the statement seemed crazy. But he was right. Most of the players from that team were already gone or soon to leave. Even that young outfielder defected from Cuba last fall and recently signed a 2.8 million-dollar contract with the Texas Rangers.


The Cuban government has reacted to the steep decline of the Serie Nacional by radically changing the league’s format. The season now has a break halfway through and the bottom 10 teams are eliminated. Their players are then absorbed by the remaining six teams through a draft. A second draft before the playoffs absorbs the top players of the two teams eliminated into the four teams advancing to the semifinals. But even still, there simply isn’t enough talent to consolidate. At the last World Baseball Classic, Cuba was fortunate even to reach the second round, where they failed to win a single game against Japan, The Netherlands, and Israel. When baseball returns to the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, it will be the first time in history that Cuba enters an Olympic baseball tournament not as the favorite.


All that remains of Cuba’s glorious baseball history are decaying ballparks, a few aging stars, and the fans who still live and die with their provincial team and whose towns still can be temporarily reshaped by a deep playoff run.



It costs 50 cents to get from Las Tunas to Bayamo, via a 90-minute ride on any of the large military-like trucks that make the trip throughout the day. The truck route ends by the Bayamo train station, after which you follow the railroad tracks east through town and then out the other side until the light towers on the horizon mark the location of Estadio Martires de Barbados––named for the 73 people who died in the 1976 bombing of Cubana flight 455 en route from Jamaica to Barbados, an atrocity with suspected CIA involvement and for which one of the accused perpetrators received a pardon from former Florida governor Jeb Bush.


In the neighborhood just west of Estadio Martires de Barbados is the home of Los Guayabos. You can’t miss it. It’s the only house on the block with a life-size mock grave for Las Tunas in front of it. Various totems representing the Leñadores piled atop a mound of dirt and beneath a handwritten “Descansen en paz” sign. Hanging from the balcony on the second floor of the two-family house is a large blanket with an ornately woven image of a horse. The blanket is flanked by various homemade cardboard signs bearing different images and messages including a horse eating a woodcutter’s axe, a message addressed to the Las Tunas manager warning him about the dangers of trying to cut the hair of a stallion, and a prognostication for the series predicting a 4-2 Granma victory. On one end of the balcony is a sign identifying the home as the territory of “Peña Deportiva Los Guayabos.”


A “peña deportiva” is the term for the officially sanctioned fan groups that are given reserved field level boxes at the ballpark. However, Los Guayabos aren’t officially sanctioned nor do they go to the ballpark. They are a collection of extended family and neighbors who watch every game in their wonderfully ostentatious multilevel shrine to Alazanes baseball.


In the mid-afternoon, a modern foreign sedan passing in front of the house suddenly stops. At first, tinted windows roll down and camera phones emerge to capture the mock grave and various decorations. Next, the doors open and a television crew hastily piles out of the car and begins setting up a camera for an impromptu interview. The host, a famous television personality for Tele Rebelde––the Cuban equivalent of ESPN––adjusts his unnaturally black haircut to cover his bald spot and launches into an on-camera standup. He introduces the various decorations and then conducts a quick interview with the energetic leader of Los Guayabos, a middle-aged woman who introduces herself on camera as MARISA.


Three hours later, Marisa is sitting in her concrete living room on the second floor of the house with various other members of Los Guayabos as the rabbit ears antenna of the television catch the Tele Rebelde feed for the start of Game 5. Everyone in the room has some kind of noise making device. Marisa has a gallon jug. The man of the house has a metal serving tray and a wooden spoon. A little girl who can’t be much older than six years old has a tin can. Any remotely positive development––a base hit, a stolen base, an important strikeout––is met with raucous banging on each object. Whenever Granma scores a run, Marisa scrambles across the room to the stereo next to the television and turns the speakers on full volume to blast the Alazanes’ salsa anthem––it’s pretty common in the Serie Nacional for a team to have its own salsa anthem. The husband and wife who live downstairs step out their open front door to dance in the dark of the street while everyone upstairs dances on the balcony, still banging on their pots and pans.


By the end of the third inning, Granma has amassed an 8-1 lead, which has resulted in quite a lot of music and dancing in the house. By the middle of the sixth inning, a rain delay abruptly shifts Tele Rebelde’s broadcast to a transfixing montage of windsurfing highlights set to 1990s electronic music. Shortly after Granma clinches a resounding victory to take a 3-2 lead in the series, Marisa is back in the street, lighting the grave on fire. She then picks up the flaming cardboard headstone and parades it through the light rain as the rest of her family and neighbors fan out behind her. The salsa anthem is still blaring and other neighbors on the street happily take in the scene from their doorsteps. At nearly midnight, the mood finally calms and everyone young and old puts on jackets and heads off to the carnival outside the stadium to go dancing.



Game 6 starts in two hours and the mascot on top of the home dugout is dressed like a wizard musketeer lumberjack. He wears a wide-brimmed Kelly-green hat and a one-piece Kelly-green coverall, the repurposed uniform of a rural Cuban laborer, with white gloves tucked into his chest pocket and a red cape that flows all the way to his feet. Tied around his hat––which on closer inspection is being worn atop a red baseball cap––are two bandanas, one red and one white. An elegant script, drawn by hand in red and green around the white bandana spells out “Leñadores.” In one hand, he carries a hand painted wooden axe with red and green “Leñadores” lettering down the handle. In his other hand is a wooden staff, carved into the shape of a king cobra. He says the staff symbolizes Saint Barbara, the mother of all serpents, and through the staff she delivers her blessings to the team. At various points in the game, the Leñador can be seen whispering to the cobra.


Behind him, concrete bleachers painted with the slogans of socialism are filled beyond capacity with painted faces, cardboard axes, and homemade signs depicting various interactions between horses and axe-wielding cacti. About 10 rows above the home dugout is a singing and dancing teenaged quintet. Behind the visitors’ dugout is a legion of blue and red Granma fans, filling at least a third of the stadium. Hundreds of police line the entire fence along the field, overseen by generals with gold watches on their wrists and gold stars on their hats. Hits from Cuban rappers like Jacob Forever and Yomil y el Dany boom from any of the handful of makeshift DJ booths set up throughout the crowd. But as soon as the game’s first batter digs into the box shortly after 4 p.m., nothing else in the stadium can compete with the sound of the drums.


Each team has an unofficial band of congaleros––a group of about 20 or so men who drum relentlessly when their team is at bat. The drums and rhythms that each group plays have close ties to the Afro-Cuban religious tradition known as santería. At religious ceremonies, the drums and rhythms are sacred methods of communicating with particular Yoruba deities. At the ballpark, the drums ensure that the most dominant aspect of the experience is not the Cuban government’s endless propaganda or even the play on the field, but rather something more spiritual, with a deeper and more primal history that began long before the government and will remain long after all of the baseball talent is gone.


The drums are absolutely thundering when Las Tunas designated hitter Danel Castro comes to the plate In the bottom of the ninth, with the bases loaded and the game still tied 2-2. With a 5’8”, 220-pound body that has been worn and shaped by four decades of life in Cuba, and a beautifully easy swing that has been greased and refined by two decades representing his province in the Serie Nacional and his country at international level, Castro is the sort of ballplayer who could only have come from here. On the one hand, he looks like a middle aged construction worker. On the other hand, he absolutely explodes on a 1-0 fastball and sends it flying 400-some feet over the “UNIDOS POR LA VICTORIA” sign in centerfield, as the stadium absolutely erupts in noise.


Castro takes off down the first base line, stopping to dance a few salsa steps with the first base coach before stomping swaggeringly around the bag. His home run trot ends right there. He touches no more bases but no one cares. Teammates and coaches arrive from the dugout in full sprint to devour him in celebration, and the commandos quickly take up a perimeter around the players in case the crowd spills onto the field in delirium. Castro runs into right field, pointing at the crowd and the night sky as fireworks burst overhead.