Neil Shea

writer | photographer | story consultant

Swing for the Heroes

Dispatches from Cuba :: May 2008

On Havana’s Calle San Lazaro, a block or two from the sea, the boys play baseball with a mishappen lump of plastic and a splintered, nail-studded stick. the batter stands in a gutter. across the street, the pitcher winds up beneath a bright revolutionary mural decorated with enormous portraits of Che, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Julio Antonio Mella. The dead heroes. All the heroes are dead. The pitcher winds up, delivers. The ball wobbles and hisses and comes in high.


No, no, no! ball!

Oye, strike!

Each thin, shirtless boy an umpire, each pitch followed by an argument, and maybe some wrestling. The ball gleams in the sunlight. Bases are scratched onto the pavement with white chalk. The boys have good eyes and swing away every time. Tegularly they smack line drives into the foreheads of the heroes. They take turns hitting and fielding and pitching until whack! The ball sails over the mural and out of the park. A distant thump. The boys look at each other. The ball is gone, a classic city-ball problem. The umpires call a time-out while someone runs off to find another.

Nearby, a few men demolish a building in slow motion. They stand on the roof and hack away, the concrete and plaster pouring into the street in great white clouds. There are no saftey ropes, no hard hats. the old Chevys and Fords sputtering past merely swerve out of the way as the debris falls. At the other end of the block adults stand in line outside a kind of deli, buying sandwiches of pan con jamon and slices of pork from a haunch that sways in the breeze on a large hook. Beside the food line a massive pile of garbage ripens in the heat. Sometimes, i hear, the garbage trucks come by.

The boy returns with another ball. It is smaller than the first, black and even less aerodynamic. Like a squash ball that has been tortured in a microwave. The pitches whiz in, the heroes take a pelting. Finally this ball is lost, too, and the boys give up.

Don’t you have another one? I ask.

No, a tall boy says. We have to buy one.

They each dig into their pockets and turn up three pesos. A new ball costs five. They sit beside me in the shade and we kick at stones. More wrestling and teasing. The street stretches east and west in a procession of once-grand buildings. All of them are gray now, tropical plants sprouting from cracks beneath the sagging balconies. The mural of heroes is the brightest thing for blocks, the blues and reds sparkling. After a while the boys drift away in search of something else to do, taking their dry, old gloves and dropping their bat in the street.

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