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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014
World

As Cuba relaxes baseball rules, hope rises for players


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TAMPA — Sitting in the shade of his front porch, Raul Villamia placed a red scrapbook on the table before him and thumbed delicately through it.

Page after page of box scores and news articles, stained yellow with age, document Villamia’s baseball career in his native Cuba and the United States.

The book is old but there is no dust on it.

Villamia played in the 1940s and ’50s, before the revolution that brought a virtual halt to the exchange of commerce and people between the two nations and a ban on Cuban athletes pursuing careers overseas.

Then last week, the island nation off Florida’s shores announced it will allow its athletes to work elsewhere, a move unlikely to mean more Cuban athletes playing baseball here unless the U.S. eases its own embargo against Cuba.

But it raises hopes for Villamia, 87, that one day — even in his lifetime — Cuba can one day experience the sport of baseball as he did.

As he thumbed through the pages of his scrapbook, his eyes fixed on these memories, he recalled how lucky he was to play openly and travel freely between the two countries without having to leave his homeland behind by defecting — the only option available to modern players such as Yunel Escobar of the Tampa Bay Rays.

“It was one of the greatest times in my life,” Villamia said. “Without baseball, I may never have come to the U.S. And without it, I definitely would not have seen so much of this country.

“I’ve always loved baseball. I think I started playing before I could walk.”

Villamia carries a stronger, uglier memory than baseball, though — an ordeal that serves as a reminder of the civil unrest that plagued Cuba long before the revolution.

***

He was 7 in August 1933 when then-Cuban President Gerardo Machado was toppled in a bloodless coup.

His neighbors soon sought revenge against authorities, specifically an officer suspected of murdering a student who spoke out against Machado.

The young boy watched as a mob hunted the officer down on the streets and, as he pleaded for his life, shot him three times in the head.

“It’s clear in my head,” Villamia said, cringing. “But enough about that. Let’s talk baseball.”

His clenched jaw loosens into a smile and he leaps to his feet to demonstrate the overhand curve he used as a pitcher in the minor leagues.

“I had a good fastball and overhand curve. But it was my control that won me games.”

Villamia began playing in Cuba’s version of the minor leagues at 19.

“In those days, scouts from the major leagues were always in the stands.”

In 1947, Villamia was signed by a scout and joined the Washington Senators’ organization in Big Springs, Texas.

For the next seven years, the man called “Chico” traveled the U.S., pitching for nine minor league teams, hoping to get signed into the big leagues.

“I would stay in the U.S. under six-month visas. When the season was up, I would return to Cuba.”

Among his memories: On three occasions, he was the starting pitcher for both games of a doubleheader. He still has the box scores.

“We were tougher back then.”

He pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league team in Miami in 1949, playing during spring training alongside future Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider and Gil Hodges.

A contract dispute before the 1953 season left him without a team so he moved to Ybor City, a slice of home for a young man from Cuba on a six-month visa.

He rented an apartment above the Ritz theater, worked at the Corral Wodiska Cigar Factory, stayed in baseball shape by playing for the amateur league at Cuscaden Park, and met his future wife, Nora Rodrigez.

Soon he was offered a contract to play in Iowa, played the season out, returned to Ybor and proposed to Rodriguez.

***

At this point, Villamia quit flipping through the scrapbook and returned to a memory of his native land.

In November 1953, when he was visiting Cuba, Villamia went to a baseball game in Havana with former teammates from his Cuban playing days. Fulgencio Batista, later deposed in the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, was the nation’s president.

As the four friends drove home, they were pulled over. Two policemen jumped from their car with guns drawn, screaming, threatening and calling them revolutionaries deserving punishment. Then one officer recognized them as ball players and let them go, realizing this was a case of mistaken identity.

A few weeks later Villamia returned to the U.S. and played in his final season as a professional baseball player. He retired from the sport in 1954 to become a full time husband and father in Tampa, enjoying a long career as a sign maker for the city.

He never got to play for a Major League Baseball team.

But he doesn’t look upon his baseball career as a failure. It brought him to Tampa, where he met his wife and raised his children. In a way, he said, he owes his life to that baseball player he was so many years ago.

He misses baseball, but he misses Cuba more. He wishes he could visit.

He has never known a “normal” Cuba. The unrest he experienced as a boy and young man was followed by the five decades of the ongoing embargo.

He is thrilled at the prospect of young men born in Cuba playing baseball and traveling freely again.

In his perfect world, he said, Major League Baseball would even have a team in Cuba one day.

“It’s so close, it could work,” he said.

“I have three loves outside of my family: baseball, Cuba and the United States. To combine them all would be good.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7606

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