If you go to Havana's Parque Central and ask for directions to la esquina caliente, any Habanero will direct you to a bench in the middle of the park, near the big statue of Jose Marti. There you will find a cluster of men, mostly middle aged or older, engaged in often voluble discussion about baseball. La esquina caliente means “the hot corner,” a bit of diamond jargon meaning third base and maybe containing an allusion to heated debate. It's an institution in a country where, as far as I know, there is no sports talk radio and you can't tune into the palaver and yak on ESPN Deportes. Cubans know how to make do.
If you ask, as I did, if the men of the hot corner ever heard of a pitcher named Yasvani Gallego, the reaction will be a collective sigh. Oh, yes, a man says. Yasvani Gallego was a great one.
I asked about Yasvani Gallego because, as I am not the first to observe, an era is coming to an end in Cuba. The Castro brothers will, one way or another, soon be part of Cuban history rather than rulers of the island. Their revolutionary order, like the revolutionary orders in Russia and China, will give way to something else. The change has already begun.
The timing means that Cubans who are now in school may have lives fundamentally different from the ones their parents and grandparents had. But for Cubans of a certain age, the timing is too late. I think particularly of athletes, artists and others who might, in their primes, have found fame and wealth on the world stage. Because of the accident of when they were born and where, however, their prime was spent entirely on the Cuban stage. If they were athletes, that meant they were amateurs. They made no money. They never played in America's big leagues the way that Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Venezuelans could.
I am here in Cuba for one of Peter Turnley's photography workshops, and as part of the service, Peter engages some knowledgeable Cuban guides. One of them, Marcel Benet, turned out to be an ex-baseball player who loves the game. I asked Marcel if he knew of any older Cuban baseball players I could meet. I wanted to ask how they felt about the changes happening in Cuba and to Cuban baseball. Marcel immediately thought of Yasvani Gallego. When Marcel was a boy, Gallego coached his junior team.
Marcel arranged for me to meet his old mentor on the grounds of what was once a Havana tennis club. In pre-revolutionary days, he said, this club was reserved for the capital's elite. Set close by Havana Bay, it had an impressive white stucco clubhouse, clay tennis courts, and a pool. It was so exclusive, Marcel told me, that Cuba's dictator, Fulgencio Batista, could not become a member. He had wealth and power, but he was a mulatto, and Cuba's pre-revolutionary elite was white.
These days, the former tennis club is a community rec center. There is still one dirt tennis court; the players I saw had to use the butt ends of their racquets to etch the court lines into the dirt. The other former courts have gone to weeds and the pool is empty. The land beyond the clubhouse long ago became a baseball stadium. Now the stadium is decaying. The lights in the light towers are gone, and the grass is shaggy.
To find Yasvani Gallego, we walked behind the small concrete grandstand next to the diamond. We stepped through a small door and descended a wobbly ramp built, precariously, from a couple of boards and a couple of cinder blocks. There, in the semi-darkness under the grandstand, in what was perhaps once a locker room, is the place that serves as Yasvani Gallego's office.
He is a slender, wiry man with gray hair and a ready smile. He wore a sleeveless white baseball jersey with no name on the front and the number 24 on the back, baseball pants with no belt and, incongruously, a pair of dusty pink Crocs on his feet.
I gave him some new baseballs I had brought from the states, and he was very happy to have them. Some of the balls he uses are soft and some are wound up in duct tape. He showed me photos of some of the junior teams he has coached to the Cuban championship.
My Spanish is bad and Yasvani Gallego's English is non-existent, but I was able to obtain some information about him. He was born in 1945, which makes him 71 years old. He started playing top-level Cuban baseball when he was 14, which happened to be the year Fidel Castro came to power and decreed that henceforth, all Cuban baseball would be amateur baseball, and Cuba's best players would stay on the island and play for the national team, for the love of the game, and for the glory of the fatherland--not for Yankee dollars in America.
Yasvani Gallego was not, he said, an overpowering pitcher. If he grooved a fastball, it was likely to be hit hard. He relied on control and on breaking pitches, including a curve, a slider and a knuckleball. The statistics on Yasvani Gallego are startling, though hard to evaluate or compare to American pitching stats. In his best season, both he and Marcel said, he won 15 games and lost 3. In one Cuban championship series, he posted an Earned Run Average of 0.36. It is still a Cuban record. Granted, it's impossible to gauge the level of Cuban amateur baseball when Yasvani Gallego played. Granted, his Cuban ERA cannot be equated to ERAs by major league pitchers. We do know that Cubans play very good baseball, though, and that no Cuban pitcher has ever matched Gallego's numbers. So it seems very likely that Yasvani Gallego is the best pitcher you never heard of.
I asked him if he regretted that fate did not allow him to prove his talent in the major leagues and make a lot of money. No, he replied. He was happy with the career he had. And, yes, he felt confident that he could have pitched well in the major leagues.
I asked him if he thought that the political changes that have allowed younger Cubans like Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman to leave the island for the American big leagues will help or hurt Cuban baseball. It can only help, he said, because it will enhance interest in the game. Yasvani Gallego, like a lot of Cubans, projected a kind of sunny serenity. If he harbors any bitter thoughts about the course of his life, I did not hear them.
He pulled on a baseball hat that said “Cal,” from the University of California at Berkeley. My Spanish was not up to finding out where and how he came by it. We walked up his little ramp and around the grandstand toward the field. Not many kids would be coming for instruction today, he said apologetically. It was an exam period in Cuban schools.
But the half dozen or so kids who did show up while I was there got marvelous instruction. Yasvani Gallego teaches sound fundamentals. When he drills a 12-year-old kid on fielding ground balls in the infield, the kid learns that there is a proper sequence to the way a shortstop is supposed to see the ball into his glove, turn his body, take the ball out of the ball with his throwing hand, and throw it. Gallego slaps ground ball after ground ball to the boy until he's doing it right.
Would be second basemen, one as young as eight, learn that there are two ways to get the ball to the shortstop to start a double play, one for grounders hit at them or to their left and one for grounders hit to their right, up the middle. And they practice both, many times.
I have a vague memory of my time in Little League. It involves fathers supervising “infield practice,” hitting a few ground balls to each player. They were fielded haphazardly. And at the end of the session, the dad might say, “let's get two,” and we boys would try to execute a double play, again haphazardly. And that was it, at least at the age of 11 or 12. We wanted to play games more than we wanted to practice fundamentals. So did our dads.
Cuban boys want to play games, too, I am sure. But coaches like Yasvani Gallego see to it that first they learn how to play right. That may be the reason Cuba punches above its weight in international competition. I'll be curious to see if that Cuban style of sport survives the political changes that loom ahead.