Commentary

Welcome to Cuba

Updated: March 4, 2009, 11:47 AM ET
By Joe Connor | Special to ESPN.com

QUICK FACTS

Most Known For (outside baseball): Producing great music and even better cigars and rum, and being a Communist state long ruled by the ideology of Fidel Castro.

Location: Caribbean, island between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, 90 miles south of Key West, Florida.

Size: 43,000 square miles, or slightly smaller than Pennsylvania

Population: approximately 11 million

People: Spanish descent, 60%; mixed race, 22%; African, 11%

Language: Spanish

Government: Communist state

Capital: Havana (population: approximately 2 million)

Famous National Anthem Verse: "To live in chains is to live in dishonor."

QUICK CUBA BASEBALL HISTORICAL FACTS

Most Known In Baseball For: Outstanding amateur program, with the most Olympic and World Cup victories; defectors fleeing to play in MLB, mostly talented pitchers.

Baseball's Cuba Debut: Late 1860s by American students studying in Cuba and by visiting sailors who would take on local workers in Cuban dockyards.

First Cuban-born player to play MLB: Rafael Almeida, born in Havana, for the Cincinnati Reds in 1911.

Baseball Hall of Famers: Martin Dihigo, inducted 1977, and Tony Perez (born in Ciego De Avila, 1942), inducted 2000. The late Dihigo never played in MLB because of his race. Cuban Dolf Luque was able to play because he was white whereas Dihigo was black.

Cuba's Best Baseball Town: Havana, home of Industriales, its most successful team.

Cuba's Other Baseball Hot Spots: Frankly, all of Cuba is a baseball hot bed; it's played in the streets and is part of the fabric of every day life like in the Dominican Republic.

Cuba's Baseball Weather: Bonita! and tropical; moderated by trade winds; dry season (November to April); rainy season (May to October).

Biggest Sports Competitors: None really, but Cubans also enjoy boxing and soccer.

Most Important Baseball Shrine: Town of Cruces, birthplace of Martin Dihigo.

QUICK TEAM CUBA AND PLAYER FACTS

Biggest International Rival: United States Biggest International Successes: Cuba has taken home the gold medal in the Olympics since it has been a medal sport every year except for 2000 and 2008, when it was upset by the U.S. and South Korea, respectively. The country has won 25 World Cup titles; the "AAA" Junior World Championship (under age 18) 11 times; the Intercontinental Cup 10 times; and the "AA" Youth World Championship (16 and under) four times. Most Notable Current MLB Exports (defectors): Jose Contreras, Yuniesky Betancourt, Alexei Ramirez, Yunel Escobar, Kendry Morales.

2006 WBC showing: Lost in the final to Japan.

Back From the 2006 WBC Team: Yulieksy Gourriel, Pedro Lazo, Frederich Cepeda

Gone From the 2006 WBC Team: Yadel Marti (defected since 2006 WBC), Yoandy Garlobo

Now on 2009 WBC Team: Aroldis Chapman Alfredo Despaigne; Yoennis CÚspedes

PLAY BASEBALL -- IN CUBA!

Or maybe not! Only Cuban-born players are eligible to play in the Cuban National League.

Cuban National League Overview: For nearly a half century, Cuba has been dominated by an amateur sports program modeled after the former Soviet Union (now Russia). The Cuban National Series, which debuted in 1961, features 14 teams, including two from Havana, playing a 90-game schedule from December to April, followed by a three-round playoff format, featuring a best-of-five quarterfinals, a best-of-seven semifinals and a best-of-seven final. The best players in each province take the field for their province; the age range is from 16-40. There are no trades or free-agent signings. Cuba employs the designated hitter, as its pitchers do not bat.

Most Successful Team: Havana's Industriales has won 11 titles.

Biggest Rivalry: Industriales versus Santiago de Cuba (with eight championships), the latter of which was the island's first seat of power. After Havana, Santiago de Cuba is the second-largest city and where the Cuban Revolution began. Santiago is made up of mostly Afro-Cubans with Haitian and musical influences. Havana is where the revolution ended, and is home to many white Cubans.

Some Famous Alums Who Played MLB: Jose Contreras and Danys Baez (Pinar Del Rio); Orlando Hernandez (Industriales); Livan Hernandez (Villa Clara).

Best Ballparks: Cuba's ballparks are mostly similar to Japan's, designed in a more oval shape that results in a significant amount of foul territory in the infield and behind home plate and less as you progress toward the outfield foul poles. Typical field dimensions are 325 feet down the lines; 360-380 feet to the gaps; and 410 feet to straight away center, with many outfield fences no more than six to seven feet high. Seating capacity varies from 4,000 on the small but scenic Island of Youth to the 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, with most averaging 20,000. Guillermon Moncada Stadium in Santiago de Cuba and General Calixto Garcia Stadium Holguin are two of my favorites for their intimacy. Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano remains the largest ballpark in all of Latin America and hosted the Baltimore Orioles during the unprecedented 1999 exhibition against the Cuban national team. Most of the National League ballparks are named after revolutionary heroes or victories, such as Estadio Victoria de Giron in Matanzas, which celebrates Cuba's defeat of the U.S. at the Bay of Pigs, which to Cubans is known as Giron Beach. Jose A. Huelga Stadium in Sancti Spiritus recognizes one of Cuba's greatest pitchers of all time. A gigantic monument in Huelga's honors graces the front of the ballpark, with inspiring words to the right-hander on the back of the monument from the comandante himself, Fidel Castro. Among the more quaint ballparks that don't get the fanfare they deserve are Jose R. Cepero Stadium in Ciego de Avila (Cuba's smallest province) and Julio Antonio Mella Stadium in Las Tunas, which boasts the highest outfield wall in all of Cuba's National League.

Ballpark Atmosphere: You'll hear no mellow organ music, commercial announcements, nor witness any advertising for car dealerships along the outfield walls, because, well, there are no corporations in Cuba. But like Dominicans, Cubans like to listen to music at a ridiculously loud volume by North American standards so prepare to lose your hearing. In the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, there is often up to an eight-piece band of "Congregos," playing congo and horns, some while enjoying a Cuban cigar at the same time!

Ballpark Food and Drink: You also won't find any ballpark vendors sporting jerseys from "Aramark," nor will you find many advertised prices. But ballpark food is dirt cheap, from 1-5 Cuban pesos (mere pennies on the dollar for U.S. visitors) and vendors roam the ballpark so you don't have to get up to stand in any lines. There's roasted pig (right there in the aisle ways), ham sandwiches, pizza, popcorn, popsicles and other candy. Some ballparks even allow fans to bring their own food, and they'll be no shortage of smoke clouding the stands, as Cubans love to smoke their famous cigars. Havana Club rum has to be smuggled in but the police don't usually notice.

Distinctly Cuban: Most Monday-Saturday games begin at 8 p.m., with Sunday games usually starting at 2 p.m. … The Island of Youth's Cristobal Labra Stadium is Cuba's ultimate throwback, with no ballpark lights and occasional contests starting at 10 a.m. The right-handed Pedro Luis Lazo became the pitcher with the highest number of victories in the history of Cuban baseball after he won game number 235. … Unlike U.S. amateur baseball, which uses the aluminum bat, Cuba is all wood.

Joe Connor is a contributor to ESPN.com who has visited more than 30 baseball countries on six continents. He's the author of "A Fan's Guide To The World Baseball Classic," which is available for purchase exclusively at his Web sites: www.modernerabaseball.com and www.mrsportstravel.com.