On Wednesday night in Havana, Cuba, a tall guy in a t-shirt and basketball shorts started playing catch on the lawn outside the historic Hotel Nacional. The man lazily slow-tossed the ball to his friend as the sun set on the harbor below the famous el Malecón. But then he kept moving further and further back down the lawn, throwing perfect darts from 60, 70, 80 feet away.
Soon, a crowd gathered.
The waiters who had been hustling to set tables for dinner on the patio a few feet away suddenly stopped and looked out at the lawn, then back at one another, completely confused. The guy was throwing heat.
A hotel guest ran over and asked in disbelief, “Is that … Clayton Kershaw?”
It was. The guest did another double-take and then fumbled for his phone.
“What is Clayton Kershaw doing in Cuba?!”
Well, he was having a catch, for starters. But he was also a part of a historic MLB goodwill trip that welcomed Cuban defectors Yasiel Puig, José Abreu, Alexei Ramírez and Brayan Peña home for the first time.
When Kershaw finished his pitching session on the lawn, the crowd clapped and thanked him, still in disbelief.
“Gracias! Gracias! Thank you! Amazing!”
Some were moved to tears.
It became a running theme. Everywhere the players went in Cuba, there seemed to be tears — from friends, family and fans. The Players’ Tribune was on hand to capture the raw emotion of the week.
An Industriales Havana fan gets emotional while meeting José Abreu outside the Hotel Nacional. The man cried for several minutes while Abreu hugged him. Later, we asked another fan why Abreu seems to mean so much to Cuban fans.
“Big shoulders. Big arms,” he said. Then he pointed to his chest. “Bigger heart.”
MLB Chief Officer Joe Torre enjoys a cigar and takes in the local scenery on the bus to a youth baseball clinic in Matanzas, providing a running commentary on the exact models of the lime green and powder blue ’50s-era cars lining the streets.
Dave Winfield pulls off the delicate backpack/camera double play before boarding the bus. His photography game was Hall of Fame worthy for the duration of the trip.
After the two-hour bus ride, Alexei Ramírez high-fives the crowd on the way in to the stadium in Matanzas. Some in the crowd had been waiting for hours to greet the players, and one little Industriales fan had enough standing around for one day.
Abreu hugs a crying man while entering the stadium. In Cuba, nobody calls him “José.” Everybody yells out, “Pito! Pito!” José got the nickname, which means “little whistle,” because as a kid he used to follow his uncle around, begging him to play his guitar.
Seattle Mariners outfielder Nelson Cruz enjoys a cafe cubano in the players’ lounge before taking the field
Yasiel Puig walks through the cavernous dugout to the field.
Estadio Victoria de Girón was built in 1977 and is the home of the Matanzas Cocodrilos.
There are no advertisements at the stadium, only painted slogans and portraits of baseball heroes from the past.
The self-proclaimed “Godmother of the Cocodrilos” yells for Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig. When Puig waved to her, she shouted, “Hey, you better behave in America! Be good!”
A total of 150 local 13-year-olds participated in the clinic. When asked who their favorite player was, many said players from the Cuban League.
Puig addresses the crowd.
Watch: Puig greets a young fan in the stands.
A fan takes a front row seat. “In Cuba, baseball is different,” a clinic worker told us. “It’s in the blood. It’s not money. It’s part of our life.”
Alexei Ramírez played for the Cuban League’s Pinar del Río before leaving the island to join the Chicago White Sox, where colorful manager Ozzie Guillen gave him the nickname “The Cuban Missile.” But here in Matanzas, fans shout out to him by his original nickname, “Pirineo.” The Little Kid.
A fan holds out a book with a signed photo of Joe Torre from his playing days. “Joey! Joey!” the fans yelled. The Yankees are hugely popular in Cuba. At breakfast one morning, our server said, “My dream is to see a game in Yankee Stadium one day. Who do you like better, ‘Baby’ Ruth or Mariano Rivera?” Tough choice.
A fan clutches an autographed baseball, but the most coveted request from fans was a selfie with the players.
Puig instructs a young player on his swing. It was his first return to the island since defecting in 2012. He was reunited with his half-brother Yoan, who he had not seen in nearly four years. Officially, Cuban defectors are not allowed to return to the country for eight years, but an exception was made for this trip.
Watch: Miguel Cabrera watches a young slugger take a rip off the tee.
The kids enjoy a snack after two hours in the sun.
The universal language of postgame snacks. While most of the 20- and 30-something fans sported Yankees or Dodgers caps, the younger players were seen in Royals, Pirates and Giants hats.
Abreu makes his way through the crowd for the trip back to Havana. There, he spent his last few hours in Cuba with his five-year-old son Dariel, who he had not seen since defecting nearly three years ago.
What do you say to your son after being apart for so long?
“No words. There are no words,” Abreu said. “You can’t say anything.”
Fans swarm Cabrera and Cruz as the players leave the Estadio Victoria de Girón.
The players appear at a church back in Havana where they made a donation to a charity that helps local youth. Then they were treated to a special musical performance by some of the church’s young superstars …
… Fire emoji.
Puig bows down to Peña after the catcher took the podium and delivered an impeccable dual-language speech in both Spanish and English. Peña left for the U.S. in 1999. On the trip, he was reunited with his 84-year-old grandmother for the first time in 15 years.
Watch: Kershaw fields some passionate questions from the crowd.
As the trip drew to a close, the question on everyone’s mind seemed to be, “What does this mean for the future?”
After the clinic, Antonio Castro, son of Fidel and vice president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, told reporters, “We’re experiencing an era with a new relationship with Major League Baseball and the Players Association, one where we want the baseball players to play baseball, where they live in a normal world and they have the same rights.”
The hurdles to further cooperation are complex. So what does the future hold? Brayan Peña summed it up best: “I don’t know, but I know we are making history.”
Photographs by Chip Litherland/The Players’ Tribune