Welcome to Cuba

Quick facts

Location: Caribbean, island between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, 90 miles south of Key West, Fla.
Size: 666 square miles, or slightly smaller than Pennsylvania
Population: 11 million
People: Spanish descent 60%; Mixed race 22%; African-language (Spanish) 11%
Government: Communist state
Capital: Havana (population: 2 million)

Baseball (and other interesting) notes
Most known for: Outstanding amateur program; Communist leader Fidel Castro; defectors, mostly talented pitchers, fleeing to the U.S. to play MLB; producing good music and even better rum and cigars.
Famous national anthem verse: "To live in chains is to live in dishonor."
Baseball's Cuba debut: Late 1860s by American students studying in Cuba and by visiting sailors who would take on local workers in Cuban dockyards.
Cuba's baseball hotbeds: All of Cuba is a baseball hot bed; it's played in the streets and is part of the fabric of everyday life.
First Cuban-born player to play MLB: Rafael Almeida, born in Havana, played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1911.
Cuban-born players with major-league contracts: 24
Most notable current MLB exports: Jose Contreras, Orlando Hernandez, Livan Hernandez, Danys Baez
Ones to watch in the future (these players have successfully defected): Kendry Morales (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim), Yuniesky Betancourt (Seattle Mariners).
One to watch who might defect: Yulieksy Gourriel
National (U.S.) baseball Hall of Famers: Tony Perez (born in Ciego De Avila, 1942), inducted 2000; Martin Dihigo, elected to Hall of Fame by Negro Leagues Committee in 1977.
Cuba's baseball weather: Bonita!, and tropical; moderated by trade winds; dry season (November to April); rainy season (May to October).
Biggest sports competitors: None really, but Cubans also enjoy boxing and soccer.
Most important shrine: Town of Cruces, birthplace of Martin Dihigo.
Only in Cuba: Are fans so passionate about baseball, they climb light standards inside the ballpark just to get a piece of the game action as crowds below clog the aisle ways and sight lines. ... Is the outside world beamed in, but going out to see anyone of it is a no-no. Today, most of the hotels where players in the Cuban National League stay while on the road are equipped with satellite television, including ESPN and CNN. That's because these hotels also serve Canadian and European tourists that have been welcomed to the island since the early 1990s out of economic necessity following the collapse of the former communist Soviet Union. ... A separate "Super League" follows the five-month National League season with the top-100 Cuban baseball players dispersed among four teams in Havana, playing a 30-game schedule from mid-April to mid-May.

Amateur and international competition facts
Amateur highlights: Most successful amateur program in the world, winning three Olympic titles (1992, 1996, 2004) and countless other international tournaments.
Biggest international rival: U.S.
Wood/aluminum bat use/rules: Wood bats used from early age; no aluminum use.
Other important notes: Cuba has a 16-time team National League (see below).
Amateur contact information: Cuban Federation of Baseball
Estadio Latinoamericano, Calle Pedro PĂ©rez No. 302, Entre Patria y Sarabia, Cerro, Habana
Tel: (+53-7) 878 6882; (+53-7) 873 2528
Fax: (+53-7) 878 1662
E-mail: latino@inder.co.cu; fcba@inder.co.cu

Cuban National League
The roughly 90-game regular season schedule runs December to April and is followed by a three-round playoff format, featuring best-of-five quarterfinals, best-of-seven semifinals and a best-of-seven final. The best players in each province take the field for their province, and the age range is from 16-40. There are no trades or free-agent signings. Each club carries 30 players, but only 25 players travel for road games. Cuba employs the designated hitter, as its pitchers do not bat.

Teams: Havana (Industriales Blue Lions and Metropolitan Warriors); San Jose De Lalas (Havana Province); Pinar del Rio; Matanzas; Villa Clara Orange Growers (Santa Clara); Cienfuegos; Sancti Spiritus; Las Tunas; Ciego de Avila; Granma (Bayamo); Holguin; Santiago de Cuba Wasps; Guantanamo; and the Island of Youth (Nueva Gerona).
Most successful team: Havana's Industriales
Biggest rivalry: Industriales versus Santiago de Cuba, the latter of which was the island's first seat of power. After Havana, Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city and where the revolution began. Santiago is made up of mostly Afro-Cubans with Haitian and musical influences. Havana is where the revolution ended, and is home to mostly white Cubans.
Famous alums: Jose Contreras and Danys Baez (Pinar Del Rio); Orlando Hernandez (Industriales); Livan Hernandez (Villa Clara).
MLB talent-level comparison: Low-MLB (on a good day); Low Triple-A (on a bad day)
Show me (no) money: Players draw their salaries from mandatory day jobs for which they earn $10-15 (U.S.) per month.
Free-agent policy: Defect (and risk your life on a raft) or bust.
Best ballparks: Cuba's ballparks are mostly similar to Japan's, designed in a more oval shape that result in a significant amount of foul territory in the infield and behind home plate and less as you progress toward the outfield foul poles. Typical field dimensions are 325 feet down the lines, 360-380 feet to the gaps and 410 feet to straight away center, with many outfield fences no more than six to seven feet high. Seating capacity varies from 4,000 on the small but scenic Island of Youth to the 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, with most averaging 20,000. Guillermon Moncada Stadium in Santiago de Cuba and General Calixto Garcia Stadium Holguin are two of my favorites.

Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano remains the largest ballpark in all of Latin America and hosted the Baltimore Orioles in the 1999 exhibition against the Cuban national team. Most of the National League ballparks are named after revolutionary heroes or victories, such as Estadio Victoria de Giron in Matanzas, which celebrates Cuba's defeat of the U.S. at the Bay of Pigs, which to Cubans is known as Giron Beach. Jose A. Huelga Stadium in Sancti Spiritus recognizes one of Cuba's greatest pitchers of all time. A gigantic monument in Huelga's honors graces the front of the ballpark, with inspiring words to the right-hander on the back of the monument from the comandante himself. Among the more quaint ballparks that don't get the fanfare they deserve are Jose R. Cepero Stadium in Ciego de Avila (Cuba's smallest province) and Julio Antonio Mella Stadium in Las Tunas, which boasts the highest outfield wall in all of Cuba's National League.
Ballpark food and drink: Fans have a variety of eats to chose from, including roasted pig (with porky right there in the aisle ways), ham sandwiches, pizza, popcorn, popsicles and other candy. Some ballparks even allow fans to bring their own food, and they'll be no shortage of smoke wafting through stands, as Cubans love to smoke their famous cigars. You also won't find any ballpark vendors sporting jerseys from "Aramark," nor will you find many advertised prices. But not to worry, ballpark food is dirt cheap, from 1-5 Cuban pesos (mere pennies on the dollar for U.S. visitors); vendors roam the ballpark so you don't have to get up to stand in any lines. Havana Club rum has to be smuggled inside, but police don't usually notice. After the game, grab a beer (Cristal, Bucanero, or in the eastern provinces, a Hatuey) and top it off with a Hemingway favorite, a Mojito (white rum, raw sugar, mint leaves, lime juice, and club soda).
Ballpark atmosphere: Like Dominicans, Cubans like to listen to music at a ridiculously loud volume by North American standards. The play list: salsa and boleros, plus merengue, conga, cha-cha-cha, guaracha, guaguanco, rumba, mambo, suco suco and muerte-en-cuero. You'll hear no commercial announcements, nor witness any advertising for car dealerships along the outfield walls, because, well, there are no corporations in Cuba. The fans have some unmistakable, if not always endearing qualities. They are incredibly animated and they'll often shout, regardless of how far or close you are to them. But what really makes Cuba's historic National League so unique, so different, from all other Cuban institutions is that baseball and its ballparks serve as one of the few outlets where they can truly exercise freedom of expression.
Entertainment: They don't have old-fashioned organ-music, but there is plenty of Cuban music, especially in the eastern provinces of Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo. In these music capitals of Cuba, there will often be up to an eight-piece band of "Congregos" playing congo and horns, some while enjoying a Cuban cigar at the same time! One instrument may include banging a piece of metal on the inside of a rusted hubcap. If not in these provinces, Cuban music will blast over the public address system between innings.
Games: Most Monday-Saturday games begin at 8 p.m., with Sunday games usually starting at 2 p.m. The Island of Youth's Cristobal Labra Stadium is Cuba's ultimate throwback, with no ballpark lights and some contests starting at 10 a.m.

Joe Connor is a contributor to ESPN.com. He has a Web site at www.modernerabaseball.com.