The sugar-cane fields are ablaze here, their scorching sweet smoke rolling down the barrancas, a sign that the rich, hard weeks of harvest have come.
This island has two obsessions, two sources of sustenance, two causes for annual celebration: sugar and baseball.
Both have reached their season of fruition. Both are on fire now - cane by day, baseball by night.
"That's one sugar on Juan Castro." crackled the voice of Sala Manca, the baseball radio announcer for all Cuba. "The fish has bitten the hook."
From easternmost Point Maisi to the Isle of Pines in the west, perhaps half of Cuba's 9.6 million people are listening to Sala Manca's voice as he tells them in his rolling idiomatic Spanish that the count on Juan Castro is one strike.
In the batter's box in Pinar Del Rio Stadium , Castro steps out. The bases are loaded and so is the air - with a crescendo of sound.
Women beat on 20-gallon tin cans. Enormous air horns, outlawed as hearing hazards in the U.S., pierce the lush night. It takes three men to lift the largest horn. The leader of the trio is still in his cane-cutting field clothes with gaucho straw hat. He smokes a foot-long Cuban Hupman cigar and smiles blissfully.
Banners flap above the Pinar dugout: "Juan Castro, with your home runs, you put rythm back in the dance."
Castro fouls the second pitch into the crowd. Two sugars on Castro," Sala Manca tells Cuba. "Now the fish is in the pan."
The crowd of 30,000 beisbol fanaticos filling every bench seat in the beautiful, spanking modern stadium, pleads with Castro.
The precious foul ball that Castro had hit into the stands is thrown back into play. A soft ripple of cheers acknowledges the gesture, for baseballs, like many commodities here, are hard to come by. A man in white gloves so that only clean hands will touch the ball - collects the pelota for future use.
The moral mandate to return fouls is just one Cuba incongruity to northern eyes. All fans get in the stadium free - first come, first seated. Cows graze only a few feet away from the open stadium gates, and occasionally must be dissuaded from wandering into the park.
Once inside, the single-deck stadium offers no advertising, no ushers, no concessionaires, no hawkers, no panty-hose night, no exploding scoreboards, no inessential public address announcements.
The game is the only focus and it is played quickly, usually in two hours or less. Strong, sweet hot tea is passed through the stands in small cups during the middle innings. A few drink. Cabeza de Lobo - Wolf's Head - beer, but they do it surreptitously. Baseball is thought to be sufficient inebriation for any Cuban.
The Havana manager, hoping to squeeze the two-strike tension tighter around Castro's throat calls a long mound conference with his pitcher, Juan Pedro Oliva, brother of former big-leaguer Tony Oliva.
The party caucus at the hill is enormous - six players and a manager. But Pinar del Rio shows Havana what a real conference is like: all three base runners, two coaches, the on-deck hitter and the manager surround Castro at home plate, patting him on the back, giving advice.
If Havana can have seven on the mound, Pinar can have eight at the plate.
Finally, all four umpires - dressed in outrageous raspberry suits so they look like four fat popsicles - congregate on the mound to break up a meeting that now seems to have enough members for a coup d'etat.
Sala Manca tells the masses every detail. In the morning at 5 a.m., the laborers will be back in the cane fields stripping the burned leaves off the cane stalks with their machetes. Until sundown, they will work, often scrambling in mountainside fields. The baseball games at night are their release, their joy.
Sala Manca knows. The Cuban government knows. "Baseball helps the harvest," says that other Castro, Fidel. "It is tied to the heart of our economy."
When the "Game of the Night" has ended. Rebel Radio will flash around the island, picking up other games in progress until the last out in Cuba has been recorded.
"Will the fish be fried/" asked Sala Manca as the huge conference disperse. "Will it be three sugars on Castro?"
Castro lunges at a curve, catching it flush on the fat of his aluminum bat.
CLANK!! Although his swing was off balance, the lively metal bat and the even livelier Batos ball produce a soaring fly to the left garden. The white baseball hangs high in the constellation-filled Caribbean sky, fly toward the only two signs (one says, "Harder work produces better quality tobacco" and is signed with one word 'Fidel." The other is a 40-foot-high mural of a local revolutionary).
Cuban crowds never make a mistake on fly balls. It is shameful to stand and scream for a fly ball that dies at the warning track. Only Sala Manca is extended the privilege of doubt.
"Se ve, Se va (It's going, It's going)," he screams as an estimated 5 million Cubans listen. "No se va (It's not leaving). Se, se va (Yes, it is)," he plays the cat-and-mouse game.
The crowd roars. The ball disappeared over Fidel's name on the sign. Sala Manca cannot keep his secret any longer.
"Goodbye, my dear Lolita," he says, laughing to show that he knew it was a grand-slam home run all the time.
So no one cares that a marriage of an aluminum bat, a rabbit ball and a short fence (345 feet to left-center) have combined to create this moment of madness.
Cubans demand excitement, scoring, base stealing, strategy - therefore, all the conditions of the Cuban game promote offense. A 1-0 pitcher's duel is worse than cutting cane. Fans leave early en mase in disgust.
A grand-slam like Juan Castro's produces a minutes of near-national euphoria. All along the winding 200 kilometers of road from Pinar del Rio to Havana, people are in the streets, at gas stations, in front of diners, listening and cheering.
This ball will not be returned by the children outside the stadium.
The noise is the Pinar del Rio stands is shattering. This has always been called the "Cinderalla Province" because it has produce great athletes despite its rual spareness, its ancient housing, its legacy of brutal labor in the cane and tobacca fields.
It has been a generation since the Vegueros (Greens) had a champion. Good players, si. Island-wide supremacy, no.
Now they have a champion. When the youthful Pinar fuzz-beards (average age 23) startled the nation by winning the 18-team Series Nacional in March, there was a holiday in the province.
Cane-cuters, with their machetes raised, formed a phalanx of honour to escort the team into town.
People rode horseback, the players stacked themselves on jeeps. Beer and rum and pork and dancing filled the streets all night.
On this night, the greeting for Juan Castro as he runs out his grand slam is a continuation of the same celebration. Pinar del Rio has moved up into the same rarified air of the Series Selectiva - the six-team national World Series when the stars of all 18 provincial teams are consolidated.
Beyond all expectation, Pinar now leads the Series Selectiva, as well, holding a cane-stalk thin two-game lead over the menacing maroon-clads of Havana.
Before Juan Castro reaches second base, the entire Pinar team has exploded from its dugout and waits for him - not at home plate, but strung out the entire length of the third-base line. As soon as Castro's foot hits third, his hand is grabbed in the first of 25 soul shakes.
At the plate, the three men who were on base wait with their arms linked around each other's shoulders. They are bouncing as they wait to give Castro his final embrace.
It is only the first inning.
It would dismay Cuba to think that any country could match its love for baseball. Relative to its population, this nation is convinced that neither the United States, Japan nor any Latin neighbor is its equal in per capita frenzy - either in playing the game, watching it or dissecting it.
Baseball in Cuba is a unique three-part blend, as pungent as the land's omnipresent espresso coffee.
That mixture is one part century-old tradition, one part artistic Latin temperament and one part first-generation communism. No other country offers the old game in such a challenging and often perplexing form.
More than 100 years ago an American Merchant Marine ship sailed into Matanzas Bay. On a hilltop overlooking one of the most breathtaking natural harbors in the Caribbean, the U.S. sailors planted a huge seed exactly the size of a basebll.
On that hill above Matanzas, a town called "the Athens of Cuba" for its beauty of its setting, the islanders built their first baseball stadium, Palmer de Junco, and inaugurated it in 1874.
Today, Palmar de Junco is a preserved relic, a museum, an academy for young players of the Matanzas province.
During its first 100 years, the park played host to scores of legendary Cuban players from Adolfo Luque (194 major leagur victories) and Martin Dihijo (Hall of Fame), through Camilo Pascual and Minnie Minoso, down to the last prerevolutionary contingent that included Tony Perez, Mike Cuellar and Luis Tiant.
One need look no further than ancient Matanzas to discover the importance of baseball in Cuba under Fidel Castro.
The town itself is as physically repulsive as its setting is magnificent. Public housing is Cuba's major embarrassment, and no better example than Matanzas need be looked for. The one-story row housing makes Appalachia look like a resort.
The people in those houses, however, are fiercely dignified. The gutters are spotless and the children who pop out of the dismal doorways are like so many neat pins.
In the midst of this cramped world of narrow streets, tiny and overcrowded houses and antique U.S. automobiles of the '40s and '50s, rises the Estadio Victoria de Giron - a 30,000-seat memorial to Cuban baseball and to the American defeat at the Bay of Pigs.
The park looks a bit like Chavez Ravine with a hint of the enclosed coziness of Fenway Park. That is to say, it is more pleasing to the eye than half the stadiums in the U.S. majors. And it also looks like it cost more to build than all the pinched houses in Matanzas.
Baseball may be the only facet of Cuban life that comes close to transcending politics. Other sports bear the stamp and rhetoric of a severely disciplined party line. There is an approved state way to do every pushup, and if a child anywhere in Cuba chins himself, there seems to be two adult trainers on hand to graph his progress.
Baseball, however, has a degree of autonomy. True, Cuban sportswriter have been instructed to stop using personal nicknames since the team, not the individual, is of primary importance.
"We must help the people to learn to think collectively," says Cuban sportswriter Jose Luis Salmeron.
Also, Cuban pitchers who are yanked by their managers or players who are called out wrongly by umpires show incredible restraint in sublimating their anger to respect for authority.
Cuba's top hitter, Wilfredo Sanchez, was once called out by a "blind" umpire in Matanza when he was safe by a yard, leaped high in the air, spun around and made the psychic transformation from complete disbelief and fury to resigned composure before he returned to earth. He walked off the field without any show of displeasure except that four-foot vertical catapult when he first saw the umpire's thumb.
The contrast between crowd behavior in Cuba and in its spitting-distance neighbor, the rowdy Dominican Republica, is almost total. The Dominican Republic surpasses even Puerto Rio for incipient fan violence, fields ringed by police and a suppressed sense of danger.
Cuban ballparks may be the only ones in the hemisphere that combine rabid partisanship, ferocious noise and umpire baiting with a sense of total personal security.
The crowd has its right to yell, "We are being robbed" and "We are playing nine against 13." But when the ump has heard enough, he calmly raises a hand like a school principal and the sound turns off like a faucet. It is an impressive and somewhat unnerving sight.
Even after a controversial game, the umpires walk slowly, face up, into the crowd, without a policeman in sight. The children throw harmless wads of paper . . . at their feet.
Whatever subtle political and psychological realities may lie below the surface of baseball under Fidel, the exterior of the game is idyllic.
All the Cuban players must work at other jobs. Many also continue their schooling through their 20s. Members of the national team, which has won six of the last nine world amateur titles, supposedly work as dentists, accountants, dock workers and the inevitable legion of physical education instructors.
No Cuban baseball player has publicly said he has any interest in U.S. major league money in 17 years. On the contrary, Cuban stars spit out the word "professionalism" like a curse. If their stream of pro patria words is said with anything other than considerable convicton, they are even better actors than athletes.
The unpaid Cubans say they play for pride, patriotism, incalculable public adoration, and government fringe benefits that would seem parltry to a Big Ten football player.
Nevertheless, even more unusual than the Cuban players are the fans of every hue of pigmentation coexisting in the stands, without a hint of an argument, other than in jest. And without a gendarme, an usher or any offical personage in view.
Like the fans of Puerto Rico, the people of the Cuban provinces split their parks down the middle into cheering sections. But unlike puerto Rico, they throw only words across the dividing line.
"I have no interest to play anywhere else," says Cuba's top hitter, Wilfredo Sanchez, 28, whose .332 career average for 10 seasons is the highest in Cuban history. "We give to the people and they give us back things that cannot be measured.
"We all await the day when we can play against the North American Great Leaguers. We know that they are better than us. We have much to learn from them. And perhaps they have things to learn from us. We have many stories to tell each other."