To the dismay of baseball fan Kit Krieger, future travels to Cuba will no longer include get-togethers with ex-Washington Senators pitcher Connie Marrero.
Marrero, who played for Washington from 1950 to 1954, died in Havana last April at age 102, three years after Krieger helped arrange for Marrero a $10,000 annual pension from Major League Baseball.
Theirs was a special friendship, one of many forged by Krieger, a Vancouver resident who will return to Cuba in late February – his 30th visit there beginning with a 1997 trip related to his job with the British Columbia teachers federation. That trip spawned a love affair with the country and its baseball scene.
Krieger, 65, would go on to found Cuba Ball, a company bringing baseball-mad tourists to the island nation – a venture begun really to enable himself to visit affordably with groups.
With President Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement on renewing diplomatic relations broken off by the United States in 1961, Krieger sees a double-edged sword: Cuba will emerge from U.S.-imposed isolation, but the country’s professional baseball scene could ultimately disappear.
In the near term, he figures, Cuban baseball will remain unchanged, since the country can hardly be expected to allow foreign teams to poach its premier talent – at least not without hefty payments, as in Japan.
Individual players, Krieger adds, are unlikely to risk defecting while knowing that renewed diplomacy could prompt Washington’s lifting of an economic blockade, enabling them to legally sign lucrative contracts abroad.
Krieger says he sees Cuba as “the largest pool of untapped baseball talent in the world, and no one knows if [the news] will open this pool.” But he fears “the beginning of the end” of Cuban baseball. Eventually, Krieger says, Cuban baseball “will become integrated into the international baseball community, which it isn’t now.”
His love for Cuban baseball led him more than a decade ago to join the Society for American Baseball Research. He’s similarly passionate about family history, frequently conducting research on Jewish genealogy websites. Krieger (his given first name is Ernest) can trace several branches in Poland and Germany back to 1700.
Marrero, who posted a 39-40 record in the majors, lost his eyesight and hearing in his final years. Krieger solicited notes of appreciation from the aging pitcher’s American contemporaries. More than 90 letters arrived, and scores more for Marrero’s 100th birthday, including from Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Tommy Lasorda, George Kell and Harmon Killebrew.
Cuban baseball games have far more character than the typical corporate stadium American game. Scorecards and souvenirs are not sold, but makeshift bands entertain the fans.
“I went to a game in San Cristobal, in western Cuba,” Krieger recalls. “A guy hits a homer to win the game, gets on his bike to go home and gets stopped by a fan who gives him a live chicken.
“They’d played on a chain-link-fence field. The seats were concrete slabs, and everyone else watched from the beds of pickup trucks. It was not even a sandlot – it was a farm game.
“For the baseball purists,” he says, “those who love to go to Cuba, it’s a unique baseball culture.” n
– JTA News and Features