“I wish it was us,” Baker said. “I ain’t lying.”
The Nationals have expressed interest to MLB about playing the Cuban national team, while the country’s baseball commissioner has openly welcomed the Nationals to play in Havana next spring. MLB used a lottery to decide which team would go to Cuba this year — and likely next — to keep the process fair, but Baker feels the baseball team in the nation’s capital would carry extra significance, especially with thawing relations between the two countries.
“I wish everyone could go one day before everything changes,” Baker said.
Baker said he went about five years ago with his wife, daughter and teenage son. Through a connection from his friend, Cuban musician Chucho Valdez, Baker was invited to join a Jewish group from San Francisco visiting Cuba that used jazz music as a cultural exchange. Before his trip, Baker loaded a giant hockey equipment-sized bag worth of baseball gloves, shoes, balls and bats. He lugged it from San Francisco to Cancun, Mexico — where he and family stopped before heading to Cuba.
While in Cuba, avid music fan Baker went to Cuban jazz concerts nightly and loved it. He was recognized on the street because so many people love baseball there. He went to a baseball game and gained a better appreciation for former teammates and players, such as Aroldis Chapman, Livan Hernandez, Paul Casanova, Zoila Versalles, Tony Perez and others. He thinks current players could also learn from a similar trip to Cuba, and what players from there went through to get to the United States.
“The baseball game was unbelievable,” Baker said. “The way the players acted and the music I can tell why Chapman made that somersault that he did [after a save once in 2012]. When they hit a home run, everybody lined up and dancing and partying. It’s a totally different culture.”
And when he played with Cuban players, Baker said he saw why baseball meant so much to them, too.
“Just to see them and the way they trained and the pressure that’s on them to perform,” Baker said. “You perform a lot for your existence and for meals.”
The culture — with influence from Africa, Spain and Russia — also fascinated Baker. It was like stepping back in time when he saw cars from the 1950s and ’60s still in use. He took photos everywhere he went. He thought back to when he was in eighth grade and had to practice ducking under his desk during drills because of the Cold War threat. He felt “an eerie suspicion” wherever he went because of the government influence but said he “never felt safer.”
Baker said he was supposed to meet Fidel Castro’s son, a chief baseball official, to hand over the baseball equipment he brought.
“They came to the hotel in the middle of the night and picked it up,” Baker said with a smile. “You don’t say nothing. They just come get it.”