Walking into San Diego's Petco Park just over a year ago, I heard the voice of Cuban icon Celia Cruz singing her classic song, "Cuba qué lindos son tus paisajes." I couldn't help but sway and sing to the melody I had grown up hearing in my parents' Manhattan apartment. We had come to the park to watch the championship game of the inaugural World Baseball Classic. We settled into our seats behind the Cuban dugout and looked up at the scoreboard, which displayed the slogan "Aquí se habla béisbol," or, "Baseball spoken here." Thousands of Cuban fans cheered, wearing their pride on their shirts, hats and faces.
As a Cuban-American whose family has been torn apart by the tyranny of the Castro regime, I never intended to cheer for the Cuban National Team. I didn't want to give Fidel Castro any reason to gloat. Watching the opening two rounds on television, our family had rooted for Team USA and Puerto Rico, which had Bernie Williams, my son Devin's favorite player. Then, when we got to San Diego for a family vacation, we cheered in the semifinals for the Dominican Republic and Alfonso Soriano.
Even though I didn't intend to cheer for Cuba, I always believed the Cubans were entitled to compete. I disagreed with the U.S. government, which argued that the Cubans should stay out of the World Baseball Classic, an event meant to bring the international baseball community together. The Cubans had every right to play. I just didn't want them to win.
But with every passing round, the Cubans advanced and my inner turmoil intensified. As the other fans in the stands learned of my family roots, they shook my hand, adding, "You must be very proud." I smiled silently, lacking the courage to tell them how I really felt. Some had traveled to Cuba—had stayed in nice hotels, eaten good food, seen the beautiful sights.
They were impressed with the Cuba they knew. They told me the game was about sports, not politics. "Easy for you to say," I thought. They didn't know my uncle, who lives in a tin shack on the roof of a dilapidated building in Havana. They didn't know my cousin, who bartered with neighbors to get milk for her baby. They didn't know my godmother in Florida, who works the night shift at a factory six days a week and sends her meager salary to Cuba so her children and grandchildren can put food on the table and shoes on their feet.
When the championship game arrived, I remained ambivalent. For Devin, a baseball fanatic, it's all about cheering for your favorite baseball players. Japan had Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, and that was enough for him. Devin was backing Japan. My daughter, Marisol, was undecided, aware of my conflict.
Then we went to the park, and my heart began to soften. Tears rolled down my face when the Cuban team took the field, following a man bearing the Cuban flag. I looked at the faces of the players and I no longer thought of Castro. I saw athletes who were proud, yet sad; men who were baseball players, yet prisoners in their own country. Everyone in Cuba works hard at surviving. "No es fácil"—Spanish for "It's not easy"—is a common refrain on the island, meant to explain the daily struggle to survive despite poverty and political oppression. I knew it was not easy for these baseball players, either. Baseball was their way of surviving. I turned to Marisol and whispered, "I think I'm going to root for the Cubans." "Me, too," she said.
And so began an exciting game between Japan and Cuba. We cheered every Cuban player, clapped heartily when they looked dejected, jumped out of our seats with each hit and celebrated wildly when Cuban outfielder Frederich Cepeda's towering two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning closed the gap. We chanted, "Sí se puede!"—"Yes, we can!"—with the crowd. But in the end, Japan went home the champions with a 10-6 win.
For a few hours, I had put politics aside; my hatred for a leader had lessened; my love for a people had grown. But the moment was short-lived. Minutes after the game, angry Cubans gathered behind the dugout, screaming at the players: "Brinca la cerca! Brinca la cerca! No pases hambre! Quédate aquí donde hay libertad!" They were chanting, "Jump the fence! Jump the fence! Don't go hungry! Stay here where there is freedom!" The players kept their heads down, silently and quickly disappearing into the dugout and out of sight.
I left Petco Park exhilarated and deeply saddened, knowing one thing for sure. When it comes to politics, sports and Cuba, "No es fácil."