By ANNE-MARIE GARCIA
HAVANA — Cubans got to watch something on their television screens this week that this baseball-crazed island hasn’t seen in more than half a century: a Major League Baseball game broadcast in its entirety on the open airwaves.
But the early reviews were not overly enthusiastic. The game turned out to be a nearly 2-month-old matchup between two teams that boast none of the defected Cuban stars who islanders are most eager to follow.
Around 9:30 Sunday night, “Baseball International” cut to a full replay of the May 2 game between the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves, which ended in a 3-1 Nationals’ win.
It was unlike a normal U.S. broadcast, stripped of commercials and lasting just an hour and a half or so. Cuban commentators provided color and play-by-play over the original English, which could be heard faintly in the background.
Baseball is just as much of a national pastime in Cuba as it is in the United States, but even die-hard fans mostly shrugged after watching.
“It’s interesting to see how they play, but I can’t say it thrilled me all that much because I don’t know any of the players,” said Diego Sierra, 67. “I would really like to see the Cubans, see how they are developing in that league, really see how well they are doing.”
He was talking about homegrown talent like outfielder Yasiel Puig, who has posted a gaudy .436 batting average this year in 26 games played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, or fireballer Aroldis Chapman, a closer who’s on pace for 40 saves with the Reds this year and who set a record in 2010 by throwing a ball 105 mph.
Defectors’ names all but disappear from the official press once they leave Cuba, the trade-off for contracts that make them instant millionaires. Islanders rely on word of mouth, news from relatives abroad and videos passed around on pen drives and DVDs to keep up with their exploits.
“I watched this game for about 45 minutes and didn’t think much of it,” said Margarita Roman, a 46-year-old devotee of Havana’s powerhouse team, Industriales. “Besides, there weren’t any Cubans. That’s what interests us.”
“But things are changing so I hope the next step is to show a game with our compatriots, and if it can be live, all the better,” she added.
Cuban television sometimes carries MLB highlights and last month showed several games of the NBA finals between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs, days after they were played. Local cable TV, generally limited to foreigners, tourist hotels and restaurants, also has programming from the ESPN and FOX sports channels.
But Sunday’s Nationals-Braves matchup is the first time since 1961 that a full MLB game has been seen on the open airwaves, which is what most Cubans have access to.
It was not clear if Cuba got permission from Major League Baseball to broadcast the game. The Communist-run island routinely airs U.S. television content including sitcoms such as “Seinfeld” and crime dramas such as “CSI,” apparently without compensating American networks.
Washington and Havana have not had full diplomatic relations for over five decades, and most commerce between the two countries is outlawed by the U.S. economic and financial embargo against Cuba.
“Baseball International” launched about four months ago and has shown professional play from leagues in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Mexico and other Latin American nations.
Professional sports were deemed inconsistent with Marxist ideals and banned in Cuba two years after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. But recently island athletics have been undergoing something of an opening.
Several Cuban ballplayers have been cleared to play professionally in Mexico in recent weeks. Meanwhile defectors like pitcher Jose Contreras and Golden Glove winning shortstop Rey Ordonez visited the island in recent months, where they were met regularly by legions of fans.
A team of Cubans is set to play exhibition games in Miami and Tampa later this month, and the national squad is returning to the Caribbean Series after a 53-year absence.