Getting away from weather, but not sports, in Cuba

Manuel Mendez, left, and Pedro Jordan, right, take advantage of the free WiFi outside the Estadio Latina Americano in Havana. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS)

Manuel Mendez, left, and Pedro Jordan, right, take advantage of the free WiFi outside the Estadio Latina Americano in Havana. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS)

After making it through another long basketball season I immediately wanted to jump on the first flight to warm weather.

I’m philosophically opposed to visiting resort destinations, so right away I was limited to where I could go on a quick trip.

I finally chose Cuba and I will depart later today, as you read this. I’m flying into Havana and will have time to wander around most of the western half of the island.

Truthfully, I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know if it will be a tacky version of Godfather Part II hidden at the Buena Vista Social Club, a revolutionary madhouse, a tourist trap or a wild mix of all things Caribbean.

I’m ready for all of those, and hopeful that I experience something new. Cuba will be my 17th country and I believe it offers a mix of experiences that no other on the globe could.

Politically, Cuba has been the forbidden fruit for American travelers since the embargo began in 1960, and although trade and travel restrictions have been reduced recently, Cuban culture has largely been shut off from ours for nearly 60 years.

With minimal communication between the two countries we know as little about their culture are they do with ours.

What we do know, and one of the biggest drivers in my choice to make this trip, is that the Cuban people are sports fanatics.

Even with two cultures that have had little interaction over the last 60 years the ultimate tool for communication is sport. Sports are about people, making it so interesting to cover.

Cubans have found international success in two notable sports, both of which interest me, baseball and boxing.

When avid American sports fans think of Cuban athletes, they are reminded of Livan and Orlando ‘El Duque’ Hernandez in baseball and Teófilo Stevenson as a boxer, but the Island nation’s obsession with sports goes much deeper.

I won’t be in Cuba during their baseball regular season, but I will be able to watch games in the World Baseball Classic from bars, surrounded by some of the most passionate baseball fans in the world. The Cuban national baseball team is one of the favorites in the tournament, and should be able to make a run at winning a title over the next week.

As someone who used to work in boxing, visiting one of the most prominent gyms in the world is a pleasure. Years ago I covered the reopening of the Kronk Gym in Detroit, which was an immersion into professional American boxing history, but stepping into Havana’s Gymnasio Rafael Trejo will be history at a different level.

Cuban athletes are not allowed to turn professional, leaving them nominally amateurs all of their lives, unless they defect. Fighters from eight years old to 35 fight in this gym, all of whom compete in the amateur ranks.

Cuban fighters tend to fight with a distinct style, but I want to spend a day talking to those around the gym to find out just what makes the Cuban amateur boxing program the best in the world.

I won’t be spending all of the trip around sports, but I do especially look forward to learning about these two parts of Cuba. Somewhere in this trip that hopefully will be filled with great cigars, good rum and warm weather, I hope to have the chance to take in everything that I can possibly learn.

 

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Posted by Brian Fogg

Brian is the sports writer for the Manistee News Advocate. You can reach him at (231) 398-3110 or bfogg@pioneergroup.com.

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