Bowie Kuhn isn't worried about the baseball players going on strike. He's got 65,000 replacements who just got to Miami ready to step in." -- Johnny Carson
Some jokes Johnny Carson has to explain. Not this one. His entire audience knew immediately who the 65,000 baseball-playing replacements would be. Cuban refugees.
But casting Cubans as good basebll players is more than just a stereotype. There was a reason why the Cincinnati Reds had two scouts here within 72 hours of the refugees' arrival, and the same reason moved baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to step in within 48 hours to tell the Reds and the rest of baseball -- in effect -- "hands off" the Cubans. At least until their status is more clearly established.
The reason is simple: Cubans play superb baseball. Names like Camilo Pascual, Luis Tiant, Tony Perez, Pedro Ramos, Tony Taylor, Bert Campaneris, Cookie Rojas and Jose Cardenal quickly come to mind.
Ernest Hemingway correctly identified the Cuban passion for America's national pastime in "The Old Man and the Sea." Over and over again, his "Old Man" conjures up visions of "the great DiMaggio."
The Cuban obsession with baseball manifests itself in many ways. It can be seen in Miami at the numerous baseball schools where 5-year-olds learn to field a ground ball before they learn to read. It can be seen in the faces of the refugees here who say over and over, "The only reason I am here is to play baseball."
And, what would they do as an alternative? The faces cloud. "I do not think about that," is the answer over and over again.
The open area behind the last tent in the row was no more than 15 feet wide and 100 feet long. On one side stood the creaky, narrow tent, on the other a five-foot fence.
The seven men, equipped with three gloves, two bats and two worn balls, tossed the balls back and forth, swung the bats at the open air and stretched, loosening their muscles.
On this makeshift field of straw and mud, the "Free Cuban Baseball Team," as its members have named it, was holding its daily workout.
"When we first got here, there was a field where we could actually play games," said Julio Soto, the unofficial captain/coach of the team," through an interpreter. "But then they built tents over them. That is all we have left."
There are 370 tents housing slightly fewer than 10,000 refugees at Eglin. Getting processed out of the camp is a slow, tedious job. Last week, fewer than 100 refugees a day were being moved out of camp.
To the Cuban ballplayers, each delay is torturous. It means 24 hours more are lost in their quest for the chance to fulfill what they all say has been a lifelong dream: a shot at the major leagues.
"From the first day that I opened my eyes, all I ever saw was a baseball spiked shoes and a bat," Soto said. "Every year at Christmas, I got the same present from my parents: a new baseball uniform. It was all I ever wanted.
"People always told me when I was a boy that I was meant to be a baseball player. I'm crazy to get out of here, get in a uniform and get on a real baseball field again."
As Soto spoke, his companions nodded eagerly, agreeing with every word.
Eduardo Gajuso, a shortstop, quickly added: "I would give my left arm to play in the major leagues. All I've ever dreamed of is playing in the big circus. I would only for my right arm and my legs so I could play well."
In the refugees' camp, these men are celebrities. Heroes. Many, most notably Soto and pitcher Julio Rojo, are known as past members of the select Cuban all-star team.At one point, Soto asked why he was not given special dispensation in the processing since he is a baseball player. In Cuba, he explained, he would have received special treatment.
But the kind of luxury afforded the U.S. baseball pro comes to only one kind of athlete in Cuba, according to the refugees: the Olympian.
"Baseball players have certain privileges," Soto said. "But not like Olympic athletes. Baseball cannot be exported for propaganda like boxing, basketball, rowing or volleyball. In Cuba everyone call Teofilo Stevenson (two-time Olympic heavyweight boxing champion) Castro's son."
There are other athletes here. But none are would-be Olympians. "They would never leave the good life," Soto said.
"We never stayed in hotels on the road," he continued. "We traveled everywhere by bus and either slept on the bus or in the locker room of the stadium. Flying on airplanes, staying in hotels would be" -- in English -- "wonderful." Soto knows few English words. One of them, the one he uses most often, his favorite, is "wonderful."
Each of the ballplayers here tells a similar tale of deprivation, desperation and, finally, escape.
All had been professional baseball players. All say they got into trouble with the government because they were anti-Castro. They were prevented from playing baseball. Instead, they had to work 12- to 14-hour days in a factory.
They could not live without the game. When the chance came to flee, they took it, each leaving family behind. None of them has been able to reach his family to let it know he is still alive.
"The hardest part of leaving is not knowing what they might do to your family," Rojo said. "I will not sleep well until I have talked with them."
Of all the men on the team, Rojo, the oldest at 35, appears to be in the best physical condition. Each of the others looks either out of shape or stale from lack of activity. Rojo looks like he could bench-press a transport plane.
Inside this tent city, located in the Florida panhandle, these men dream. Outside the city, known as "Camp Libertad," others talk of shattering those dreams.
"It was hard to tell much under the circumstances they were forced to work under," said Sal Artiaga, one of the Reds' scouts who stages the brief tryout here three weeks ago. "They kept remininding us that they hadn't played for a long while. We were aware of their ordeal."
Artiaga will not say what another National League scout would: "These aren't teen-agers who you would sign for their potential. Their age will hurt them."
There is, in fact, some question about the men's ages.Soto says he is 27. Camp records say he is 34. Cajuso said he is 23. When a visitor said he looked older than that, he replied, "You don't know because you have not had to walk the road I have walked."
Of the eight men on Soto's team, only Rojo lists an alternative to playing baseball in the U.S. for a living, and that is coaching baseball.
Rojo's father played ball in the 1930s in the old Negro leagues for a team known as the New York Cubans. After he returned to Cuba, he was a catcher in the professional league there and, at the tail end of his career, he caught a young pitcher who appeared to have great potential: Luis Tiant. Now, his son dreams of closing out his career on the same team as Tiant.
Perhaps these are fantasies. But Paul Lane of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who has worked with refugees since the early 1960s, says that even if the major leagues don't become a reality, these men will manage.
"You have to understand that, after what these guys have been through, another setback or even four or five more setbacks aren't going to destroy them," Lane said. "These guys are survivors. The wouldn't have gotten this far if not for their ability to survive hardship."
Living in this camp is, itself, hardship. The open tents offer no privacy, the beds are small and narrow, the lines for food are endless and rain has turned most of the straw on the ground to mud.
But for the baseball players, these are minor inconveniences compared with not being able to get out and take their shots at the majors.
"When I read in the newspaper what Kuhn had said about teams not being able to scout us, I was in bed," Soto said. "I felt so sick I stayed in bed all day."
A short, solidly built man with a neatlykept Afro, Soto, a second baseman was known in Cuba as "Rod Carew." He says that even before his troubles with the government started, his ambition was to play in what he calls the "American Great Leagues."
"You cannot compare the leagues in Cuba to the Great Leagues," he said. "Cuban boys think about the Cuban leagues as a stopping point on the way to the Great Leagues, if they are very lucky.
"Being here and having a chance to just practice is like a rebirth. I feel 15 days old again just having a glove on my hand and these spikes on my feet."
When the men aren't practicing on their miniature field, they often wander over near the main entrance to the camp. There, on the other side of the fence, is a perfectly groomed diamond.
But the City of Fort Walton Beach will not authorize the Air Force to let the refugees use the field. Judging by the letters to the editor in the local newspaper the residents of this small town are less than thrilled by the presence of the refugees.
Watching the town's youngsters play on that field -- so close -- is difficult, the men say.
"Sometimes I find myself standing at the fence just screaming at someone because he is doing something wrong," Soto said. "I don't know why I do it. They can't understand Spanish. It's just hard to stand there and watch them do it wrong and not be able to do anything but watch."
Soto says that when he and his friends get out of the camp, they will get in touch with Chicago Cubs Manager Preston Gomez, a Cuban, to try and get him to help in setting up try-outs for them.
It's only right that we go to the minor leagues first," Miguel Urrh said. "We have to get used to baseball here and to living here. It will take some time. Everything will be different for us. We expect no miracles."
But they do expect to eventually make the major leagues.
The men say that this forced inactivity makes them nervous. The worry about being out of shape when Kuhn lifts his ban and they are asked to display their skills for the scouts again.
"We try to work at least two or three hours a day," Cajuso said. "But it is hard. There isn't much you can do in such a small area.
"And," he added, pointing at two MPs walking past, "we certainly can't go anywhere else."
"Someday, I want to go back to Cuba and play and exhibition tour," Soto said. "I want to show people what a free Cuban can do, given the chance. I want to go back and prove what they wouldn't let me prove before."
As the men work out, their determination is obvious. The sweltering heat seems to have no effect on them. They just keep working, often having to duck under clotheslines to chase down loose balls.
Is it worth it?
"Worth it?" said Bienvenido Sevallo, a shortstop. "I have heard the cheers of the American fans since I was a boy in Havana. Now I can hear the cheers right around the corner. Nothing will stop me now."