If you grew up a Cubs fan in the seventies as I did, Jose Cardenal was probably one of your favorite players. Known for the Afro haircut that stuck out of the sides of his cap and the basket catches, Cardenal played six of his 18 years in the Major Leagues with the Cubs (1972-1977).

jose cardenalIn his first three seasons (1972-74) as a Cub, the right-handed hitting outfielder had arguably his three most productive seasons in the Major Leagues, hitting .290 or better each season. His best year roaming the Cubs outfield was 1973 when he led the team in hitting (.303), doubles (33), and steals (19) and was named the Chicago Player of the Year by the city’s baseball writers.

Cardenal came to mind last week while I was on a baseball tour of Cuba. Of course, I didn’t know about Cardenal’s Cuban heritage when I was cheering for him as a kid. He was one of the last Cuban baseball players to leave that island before the Fidel Castro regime clamped down following the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

Baseball is considered the national sport of Cuba though soccer (el futbol) has probably eclipsed it in popularity. Why? The answer is complicated but boils down to a tremendous talent drain in the Cuban baseball world with many of the best players (who are lucky to earn $100 a month in Cuba) seeking much greener pastures elsewhere.

During my six-day tour, I saw many more kids playing soccer in schools and in the streets than I saw playing baseball. Traveler’s warming: be on the alert for wild kicks. A stray soccer ball struck me on the side of the head while I was looking down at the directional map on my iPhone.

Tour guide Ronald (wearing the Cubs T-shirt) takes a selfie with us at the game.

Tour guide Ronald (wearing the Cubs T-shirt) takes a selfie with us at the game.

That’s not to say that Cubans aren’t still passionate about baseball. The crowds at games are much smaller than we are used to here in the states. Our well-informed tour guide, Ronald Infante, accompanied us to a night playoff game at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana (known locally as the Colossus of Cerro and Gran Stadium), pitting the home team Los Industriales Lyons against Las Tunas Magos and more than half of the 55,000 stadium seats were empty. Remember: this was playoff baseball on a beautiful warm evening.

But what they lack in numbers they easily make up for in enthusiasm. Even without alcohol (which is not sold or permitted at the games), the crowds are lively and spirited, oftentimes engaging in playful banter with the opposing team’s players. One superfan (think Ronnie Woo Woo with a whistle) kept things from ever getting boring by blowing on a whistle to call the fans to attention and then leading them in chants – some of which were apparently quite colorful judging by the reactions of fans and players alike. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had at a ballgame where beer wasn’t involved. And the home team, sparked by two home runs, won 6-1, so just about everyone went home happy.

Legendary Cuban baseball player and manager Rey Vicente Anglada signs a baseball for me.

Legendary Cuban baseball player and manager Rey Vicente Anglada signs a baseball for me.

Later in the week, we had the great pleasure and honor of meeting one of Havana’s all-time greats, Rey Vicente Anglada, for a private lunch at Restaurante Starbien in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana, arranged by tour operator Frank Gonzalez of Cuba Travel & Trips.

Humble and personable, the 62-year-old Anglada’s baseball story is fascinating. The speedy second baseman described by Cubans as a cross between Roberto Alomar and Rickey Henderson, began playing with the Industriales in 1972-1973, leading the Cuban baseball league in steals four times (1977-1981). For his career, he hit .291/.362/.398 with 197 steals in 286 tries.

Nicknamed El Rey Azul (The Blue King), Anglada’s baseball-playing career came to an abrupt end in 1982, when he was dragged down in a vast betting scandal that snagged 18 players and an umpire. It was the downfall of a hero and for 20 years he was blacklisted from baseball. He spent nearly three years in prison. Yet he has consistently claimed his innocence. Much like the fabled story of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, whose legendary career was struck down by the infamous Black Sox Scandal in 1919, Anglada became a martyr. One whose vindication came in 2001-2002, when he returned to Cuban baseball as the manager of the Industriales. He went on to lead them to three consecutive titles (2002-2003 to 2005-2006), cementing his place in Cuban baseball history as one of its legendary greats as both a player and a manager.

Today, Anglada, who wore number 36 as a player, is an outspoken critic of the United States’ embargo against Cuba, which has economically strangled the island country for more than 50 years. He sees the toll it has taken on Cuban baseball as more and more talented prospects are leaving to find a better future outside the country. These include pitcher Aroldis Chapman, who helped the Cubs win their first championship in 108 years, and stars like Jose Abreu of the White Sox, Yuri Guriel of the Astros and Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers.

Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, Cuba, home of El Industriales Lyons.

Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, Cuba, home of El Industriales Lyons.

During our lunch interview, Anglada said he does not see these players as traitors to his country but as victims of a repressive foreign policy. Although they have found riches in the Major Leagues, they are banned from returning to their home country – making them unlike any other foreign-born players in the U.S.

On our return trip home to Chicago, we had a brief layover in Miami. When I ordered my Cuban sandwich at La Ceretta, a Cuban restaurant located in the airport, the eyes of the counter attendant went wide.

The thin, young man pointed to the Industriales T-shirt I wore, the one I had bought at the stadium a few days earlier, and tapped his heart.

I showed him the photo on my iPhone.

“Anglada!” he smiled.

The people of our two countries are not that far apart. If only our two governments could be as close as the people they are supposed to represent.

Organized baseball tours from the United States to Cuba are still permitted even under the Trump administration’s recently tightened travel restrictions. If you’re interested in a people-to-people exchange baseball tour of Cuba, visit Cuba Travel & Trips for further information on their 5- to 9-day tours.

Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation. He is presently working on a book about celebrity Cubs fans with fellow Wrigleyville Nation contributor Becky Sarwate.