Playing Hardball with Cuba

Playing Hardball with Cuba

'You can give them a glove – that’s great. But they haven’t got a bat. They haven’t got a ball' Mel Meeks

Santa Fe Man’s Mission: To Ship Baseball Gear to Cuba

PHOTO BY CHARLES BENNETT

BY TOM SHARPE

Mel “Paco” Meeks always loved baseball, but growing up on a family farm in central Texas, his chores kept him from playing the sport.

Now, the Santa Fe retiree is on a mission to bring baseball equipment to Cuban kids.

Like other Americans who have visited the once-shunned Caribbean island, Meeks was struck by the sight of Cuban boys playing their national game barefooted with makeshift balls and bats, without gloves or other gear.

“You can give them a glove – that’s great,” he said. “But they haven’t got a bat. They haven’t got a ball. They haven’t got a helmet to put on their heads. They haven’t got any safety equipment.”

I recently had a chance to visit Cuba. Travel by Americans is still restricted to journalists and cultural exchange groups, despite the opening of scheduled air service made possible under an order by former President Barack Obama.

Mel Meeks with baseball gear bound for Cuba

Mel Meeks with Cuba-bound trunk of baseball equipment

At Meeks’ request, I lugged a 49-pound trunk of bats, balls, gloves, batting helmets, a catchers’ mask, chest guard and shin guards to Cuba. We chose that weight because it’s one pound below the limit at which airlines charge extra for baggage.

When I got to Cuba, I took the trunk to a leafy neighborhood in Santiago of what had been private mansions prior to the 1959 revolution and is now an assortment of schools, artists’ cooperatives, galleries and cultural institutions.

At the Casa del Caribe, a center of Cuban art and culture, with its exhibits of Voodoo, Santeria and other Caribbean religions, I turned over the trunk to a man named Victor Manuel Sigué Castellanos.

A journalist and photographer for the Casa del Caribe, Sigue had met Meeks on his first trip to Cuba and helped him contact kids’ baseball coaches. Sigué suggested my load go to villages on the far eastern tip of the island that had been hit by Hurricane Matthew last year. I had hoped to distribute it myself. But Sigué said these areas were still too damaged to start playing organized baseball again. He said he would take it to them in the new year.

Last month, Meeks and I got to see the fruits of our volunteer work when Sigué emailed his photographs of Cuban boys trying out what to them was brand new gear. Considering the difficulties of communication with Cuba via the internet, it was a minor miracle that we got a stream of low-resolution images.

Mine was the fourth load of Meeks’ gear to reach Cuba. The first came when Meeks first visited the island on an organized tour. The tour director had suggested taking gifts of items in short supply on the island. Meeks had carried with him two dozen baseball gloves he had collected at garage sales and at second-hand shops, some of which he refurbished with leather skills he had learned on the farm.

Meeks, 68, has always been a baseball fan. Even though his farm chores kept him too busy for baseball as a boy, after the chores were done, his father often would take a bat and hit fly balls for him to catch. Some nights, they would listen to St. Louis radio to hear Cardinals games on KMOX-AM, whose night-time signal could be picked up deep into Texas. When TV came in, they would watch New York Yankees games on CBS.

Cuban boy playing baseballAfter retiring as a Teamsters truck driver at age 56, Meeks went to the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in English with a minor in Spanish. He traveled to South America to take advanced Spanish classes and developed an interest in the work of Cuban independence martyr Jose Marti and the life of Cuban revolutionary hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Meeks first visited Cuba in 2014 and made two more trips in the next two years, each time taking more baseball equipment. After his third trip in December 2015, friends suggested he start a nonprofit to solicit donations. So he incorporated Play Ball Cuba and set up a website at www.playballcuba.com. But so far, the only contributions have come from a woman on his first tour and his volunteer board of directors, Gerry Fairbrother and Hugh Wyatt Dangler of Santa Fe.

“I’ve spent $2,000 plus setting up the nonprofit,” he said. “I could have gone down there again for that. … I’m good at repairing the gloves. Not so good at raising money.”

Meeks already has several more trunks full of baseball equipment, ready to go to Cuba, just waiting for a “baseball mule” to deliver it.

Tom Sharpe is a freelance journalist in Santa Fe.

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Dan Klein

Dan Klein is a retired Albuquerque police sergeant. Reach him via Facebook and Twitter via @dankleinabq.

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