He’s what most sports fans think they are or wish they were: extremely knowledgeable about his sport and its history, statistically driven, and user of facts in his discussion about the game. He “lives baseball,” he “suffers baseball.” It’s his game. That is Felix Antonio Salazar Menendez or as everyone knows him by, “Tony.”
It is the day before a Major League Baseball team, the Tampa Bay Rays, plays in Havana against the Cuban national team and there are a few dozen men in Havana’s Central Park talking baseball. This hot spot is known as “La Esquina Caliente” or the “Hot Corner,” Cuban slang for third base, and it is where Cuban baseball aficionados meet everyday to talk about their national pastime for hours. Tony is standing right in the middle of the crowd answering questions with specific dates, names, and numbers. It is a sight to behold.
I wait for the crowd to die down a little before approaching him. “Why does everyone care so much about your opinion? Why does everyone come to talk to you about the game?” I asked.
He humbly responded, “I wouldn’t say that. I just know a lot about baseball and I try to discuss with people using facts and I think people like that.”
Tony’s knowledge about Cuban baseball and even MLB baseball is remarkable. It is not one that has been obtained through hours of research through Google or listening to talking heads on ESPN, but rather been accrued from years of reading books, spectating games, reading imported Sports Illustrated magazines, writing down shared knowledge in his notebook, and by being a true fan of the game.
“Enjoy him while you’re here,” Alain Rivera Stable, a close friend of Tony’s told me. “He is a human encyclopedia. He knows more about baseball than any other person on this island. He is a smart guy.”
It is truly incredible he possesses so much knowledge without any digital access to information. Tony doesn’t have a functioning cellphone because it is too expensive to have one in Cuba, he doesn't have a radio, he doesn’t have access to the Internet, and he doesn’t even have access to MLB games. “They only show one game every once in a while. They can’t even give us that!” he says.
“So how do you do it, Tony? How?” I ask, still incredulous.
He chuckles, “I live for this. I live baseball, I suffer baseball, I talk baseball, and it is my sport.” Whether it’s through books that he can purchase in Cuba or through imported magazines and baseball cards that friends bring him or through research he asks people to do for him, he makes it happen.
As we continue to talk about baseball, a heated discussion – the usual – breaks out near us about who is going to win the game between the Rays and Cuba. “The Rays aren’t a good team, of course Cuba’s going to win!” shouts a gentleman in the crowd. Tony looks at me shaking his head. “That’s the problem here. People talk just to talk. I bet you he does not know anything about the Rays team. He wouldn’t be able to name a single player. He’s your average Cuban fan, he doesn’t care about the stats, and he just cares about what he thinks.”
I asked him who he thought was going to win. He told me that he does not like to predict outcomes but that he thinks MLB teams are just in better shape overall.
I then asked Tony if he was going to the game, knowing that he is one of baseball’s biggest fans. Turns out, the game was through invitation only and out of all the regulars of “La Esquina Caliente,” almost none got invited. Tony had to find a place to watch the game because there was no way he would be able to make it inside the stadium. I asked him if I could watch the game with him the following day. “Bring a notebook and a pen,” he said. “I’ll give you my analysis throughout the game.”
It’s now Tuesday and President Obama, who was on his own historic trip to Cuba, was set to speak at the National Theatre before heading out to the baseball game. This of course meant that every street within a certain perimeter was closed off to ensure security, and since Havana’s Central Park is located right in front of the theatre, it was closed as well… There went what would have been a great time with Tony – listening to him dissect the game and offering his expertise.
It is now the day after the Cuba lost to the Tampa Bay Rays 4-1 in a lackluster performance with their only run coming from a bottom of the ninth home run. I make my way to “La Esquina Caliente” once more looking for the man himself, knowing he has something to say.
“Tony! Tell me something about yesterday’s game!” I tell him.
He responds, “What can I tell you? Our Cuban pitchers are struggling with location. Our starting pitcher plays in our playoffs in two days so we had to take him out early. We can’t hit because we are not used to your speed and we made some errors. You guys are well conditioned, well trained, and well equipped. We can’t compete with that.” At this point, though it wasn’t his in-game analysis, I felt privileged to obtain his expert insight on the historic game.
After our conversation, the “Hot Corner” regulars started arriving. It was now their time to ask Tony about the game and for Tony to share his knowledge once again…
On my last day in Cuba, I obviously had to make it back to “The Hot Corner.” It was about 4:00 PM and it had already been warmed up, Cuban baseball’s most passionate fans had already gone through the motions and had already discussed their favorite pastime for hours.
I arrive looking for Tony to announce my departure and let him know that I’ll hopefully be back in a few months. “Man, you might not believe me, but it saddens me that you’re already leaving,” he says to me. “It saddens me that I am leaving too, four days with you all is definitely not enough,” I tell him, and I was not lying… It was an amazing experience to be able to spend a couple of days with this gentleman and share a little about who he is.
In the couple of days I spent with Tony, it was impossible to completely cover his whole story. He is a man of many trades - from being a huge people person, to brokering house exchange deals, to his great dominoes play and his passion for dancing – and it was impossible to capture all that in such short amount of time.
I cannot wait to go back to the island to continue to cover his story and all the many more untold ones that exist on this beautiful island.