The red team bus rumbles over rough roads cut through the green countryside of Pinar del Rio at the western tip of the island. It is nearly dusk, and the insistent verdancy of the rolling landscape is muted by a soft gray rain. Reynaldo Fernandez, an outfielder and designated hitter for the Camag�eyanos, the new baseball champions of Cuba, stares listlessly out a rain-washed window at passing banana trees and rice paddies. A portable radio spewing Latin music is fixed to his ear. The bus nearly stops as it crosses a narrow, rutted bridge. In a field below, a farm girl waves at the strangers. Fernandez, who is 22, nods his approval to a seatmate. He is wearing one of the red "Campeons" knit shirts that were awarded the players after their triumphant season, and tight-fitting white double-knit slacks. He slouches low in his seat, because like most of his teammates, he is more tired now than elated. Camag�ey had clinched the championship several days earlier and then, with nothing more to gain, had lost the final three games of the season to Pinar del Rio. The players had been away from home for nine days, sleeping, as visiting Cuban players do, in bunks set up in the stadium locker rooms, eating mostly from clubhouse kitchens, scarcely leaving the ball park, eating and sleeping baseball. It is all over now, and it will be good to be home again.
"I hope I'm not too busy tonight," Fernandez says to a teammate. "I just may go look for women and dance."
But the looking will be hours away. The drive from the Captain San Luis Stadium in Pinar del Rio to the San Julian Air Base will require two hours. There will be nearly an hour's wait among ferocious mosquitoes at the base, and the flight, aboard a small, Soviet-built passenger plane, will last two hours. There will be no champagne on this flight, only ham sandwiches and orange juice, fare hardly appropriate to champions.
But as the little plane drops in for a landing at the Ignacio Agramonte Airport in Camag�ey, hordes of well-wishers are massed at the terminal. Their welcoming cheers are heard above the roar of the engines as the plane taxies onto the apron. The crowd surges forward when the engines stop. A band is playing spiritedly, though it can barely be heard through the din. Red and white banners salute the team, Camag�ey's first to win the national championship. They also salute the revolution, which is comparable in the United States to hailing democracy. A committee hurtles forward to welcome the champions and Carlos Gomez, their boy manager. Gomez, 29, is a physical education instructor whose own playing career ended in the ninth grade. College-educated theoreticians are more numerous among Cuban managers than field-trained Sparky Andersons.
Flags flap lazily in the warm evening breeze. "Viva Camag�eyanos!" "Viva B�isbol!" Television lights illuminate the scene as the players are shepherded to a column of Soviet-made jeeps that will transport them in triumph up the Avenida Doble Villa, where crowds five deep await the Camag�eyanos, to the Plaza de Caridad, where there are thousands of Other celebrants. There is to be a "Festival of Baseball," and it does not seem possible that there is a man, woman or child among the city's 200,000 inhabitants who is not on the streets this magical night. Busloads of children follow the jeep caravan, the youngsters hanging out the windows and banging the sides of the buses in rhythm to the Spanish equivalent of "We're No. 1." Other children and adults scamper alongside the jeeps, shouting out their heroes' names—"Cruz!" "Diaz!" "Hernandez!" Some leap aboard and dance on the seats.
At the plaza, everyone is dancing—a pretty red-haired young girl with a portly man in a floppy straw hat, a shrunken old man all alone, whirling crazily in widening circles. There are chunks of ice on the sidewalks, and the good Cuban beer is everywhere (10,000 cases of it will be quaffed in a 12-block area this night). The players are hurried by the police and their auxiliaries through the roistering masses to a reception given them and their families by INDER, the National Sports Institute, in a courtyard secluded from the main plaza. But the townspeople, unaccustomed in a socialist society to such exclusivity, rush the gates to the yard, bending them perilously near to breaking, flattening the police protectors against the gates like cartoon characters. It takes perhaps an hour for the authorities to drive the celebrants off. Later there are renewed assaults on the barricades.
In the courtyard, the players dance and eat and laugh and drink with the invited guests. A band—a tenor saxophone, three electric guitars, an electric piano and drums—doggedly blasts a tune composed for the occasion, Camag�ey Campeons.
No one can say how many revelers there are (the estimates would go as high as several hundred thousand), but there can be no question that the enthusiasm for baseball in this ancient and cobble-stoned city in the heart of communist Cuba is big league. So unrestrained is the outpouring of affection for the champions, the celebration could just as well be happening in another heartland city, Cincinnati, Ohio.
The next day, Miguel Cuevas is burdened with what he euphemistically describes as "a certain grogginess." He is the greatest living baseball hero in Camag�ey, probably in all of Cuba. Three times he led the National Series, the Cuban major league, in homers and runs batted in. His 86 RBIs during the 54-game season in 1968 are a record, and he is the career RBI leader in Cuban baseball. He was batting champion in 1966 and led the league in hits in 1964. He was named the Outstanding Player in the Province of Camag�ey every year from 1963 through 1968 and again in 1970, and he was Cuba's Outstanding Player from 1966 through '68. He is an outfielder on the Cuban all-time All-Star team. If he is not the Babe Ruth of his country, he is at least its Joe DiMaggio. "He is an idol," says Havana journalist Jaime Caminada. "Everywhere he walks on the streets, he is recognized. In a baseball crowd, even Fidel would not receive the recognition of Don Miguel." It is always "Fidel" in Cuba, never President Castro, SPORT IS THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE—FIDEL reads a typically huge poster on the walls of the Havana sports coliseum. And it is always "Don Miguel," a mark of the respect given the retired player. We would call him "Mike."
Don Miguel may appear a trifle wan the day after the great celebration, but he is alert, nevertheless. And at 42, he remains athletically trim and muscular through the shoulders. Slightly balding, mustachioed and chocolate-colored, he looks like a Moorish lord. The living room of his tidy, two-story home in Camag�ey is dominated by the fierce image of Che Guevara staring balefully from the wall behind the Don's favorite chair. After a few days in Cuba, the omnipresent visages of Fidel, Che and the 19th-century poet martyr, Jos� Mart�, become as familiar as wallet photos of one's own children. In photographs or as statues, these giants seem to gaze down on you from every building. On another wall in Cuevas' home is a giant scroll commemorating his retirement from baseball three years ago after 20 seasons of distinguished play. It is personally signed by Fidel, a signal honor, the only such scroll ever awarded a Cuban ballplayer.