Wardman Library proudly hosts: Viva Cuba Béisbol

Juan Zuniga-Mejia

“Play ball!” Motely claps his hands together as he introduces his presentaton on the cultural significance of béisbol   in Cuba.

“Play ball!” Motely claps his hands together as he introduces his presentaton on the cultural significance of béisbol in Cuba.

On Feb. 7, at Wardman Library, Whittier College’s Institute for Baseball Studies hosted Byron Motley to discuss the College’s recent Jan Term abroad program to Cuba and on Cuban culture. Terry Cannon, Co-director of the Institute, and Executive Director of the Pasadena-based Baseball Reliquary, describes Motley as “a Renaissance man” for his skills as a photographer, Los Angeles-based author, singer songwriter and filmmaker. 

In the past 13 years, Motley has visited Cuba a grand total of 23 times. He has an immense love for the island and referred Cuba as,“my home away from home, and I cherish it.” His love for Cuba originates from his parents who went to the country in 1958 and nine months after their trip, gave birth to him. As for Motley’s love of béisbol, it began with his father, Bob Motley. He was an umpire for 13 years and was the last living member of the Negro League,  in Kansas City; a league formed by African-American baseball players after racism and “Jim Crow” laws prevented them from playing. Together, father and son wrote a book, titled Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants and Stars: Umpiring the Negro Leagues and Beyond

In Motley’s slide presentation, he introduced his photography book titled Embracing Cuba to share the impact that béisbol has in Cuba. The audience all laughed with Byron’s charm and admired the series of street béisbol photos Motley started with. In Cuba, street béisbol is witnessed often. People will play anywhere and with anything: from yarn balls and small limes as their balls, cardboard as mitts, sticks and brooms as bats, and paper and tin as bases, Motley shared the passion of young kids and adults playing the nationally loved sport. “Béisbol is their, [Cuba’s], religion,” said Motley. 

Some of his work includes a drawn square target used for practice by some kids. A father pitches a homemade ball to his son holding a stick for a bat. An elderly lady (who Motley presumed was a grandmother) tries to take a bat away from the tight grip of a child. Graffitied on some walls, where more games are proudly played, are the words “Viva Fidel.” On the edge of a wall by the sea, the sunset creates the silhouette of two young boys pitching and batting. 

At the national level, it becomes hard for players to leave Cuba to play professional baseball in America. “The Cuban government does not like their players leaving, it becomes hard for them to win their nationals,” said Motely. “True revolutionaries are not pleased with those who leave for the money.” However, he also shares that families appreciate the money their athletes send back home. 

Some of America’s professional Cuban and Cuban-American athletes are: Yasmany Tomás of the Arizona Diamond Backs; Jose Iglesias of the Detroit Tigers; Yasmani Grandal of Los Angeles (LA) Dodgers; Yulieski Gurriel of Houstan Astros and Alex Guerrero former LA Dodger third base man and left fielder who now plays for Chunichi Dragons in Japan; all of whom were athletes that Motley had the pleasure of photographing and meeting at one point through their careers.

Béisbol is the most hyped sport in Cuba on the streets, but in the stands it is a whole other level. Fans become a tidal wave of jubilance and camaraderie. “They are so fanatical,” said Motley while showing images of fans with painted faces, people swirling their shirts and waving their arms, a woman who designed the logo of her team on her nail, and even a dog is fully blue — yes, even the tongue — wwith the family. Motley shared a video of a woman dancing in the stands with no limit or hesitation as the crowd blows their horns and whistles. Music played from the trumpets and drums that musicians brought. Everyone cheered and screamed and not a single person just watched the game. Everyone lives the game. Excitement and pride become contagious in the air, and that is only from watching the video. 

At la Esquina Caliente, Parque Central — or in English, the hot corner, central park — Motley demonstrated that fans continue their excitement after the games. In this park, grown men will sit and do nothing but argue about béisbol. People have such a strong passion that they will go to witness men argue about plays and athletes, tension rising in the air. Motley shared that it can be an intense park to be in, but otherwise nothing harmful breaks out.

One of Motley’s favorite parts of Cuban culture is the people. “Cuba includes you,” he said when telling the story of taking photos for one of Cuba’s National Teams. He said that the team noticed him taking shots and took his camera, telling him to get into the shots with them. Motley told several more stories he had of simply interacting with the people and how welcoming they had been. The audience found it heartwarming when he described the time he met up with a friend and that friend introduced Motley to the party. Automatically,  Motley was considered one of them, and was brought into every conversation with no hesitation or social buffer whatsoever. 

At the end of the presentation,  Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Co-director for the Institute for Baseball Studies, Joe Price, introduced the few students from Jan Term’s Cuba: Baseball as a Caribbean Religion course. The students all related to Motley’s experience with the Cuban civilization as a welcoming and warm environment.

They told brief stories of Cuba’s compassion. Even if they did not consider themsevles dancers, Cubans brought them on the dancefloor anyways.  Families shared their homes with our Poets and the citizens appreciated efforts to meet them halfway over the language barrier. In Cuba, the students did not feel alienated, but rather welcomed to witness the architecture, culture, and the religion of  béisbol on their island. 

Price also spoke of the time two students approached an ongoing game to ask if the Poets could join. It was a game of the Cuban team vs. the American team and ended with a tie. Photos of their trip are on display at the entrance of Wardman Library. 

On his official website, ByronMotely.com, it says Motley “highlights the many ways in which Cubans retain and nourish their zest for life despite the scarcity of every day.” There is a hyperlink where his book is being sold and also a free sneak peek of some content. His website also includes ways to travel to Cuba legally and safely.

Students  returning from abroad programs all share in something: it is a life changing experience to study and learn away from home. To learn more about studying abroad, visit the College’s website under “Study Abroad”, schedule a meeting with the Office of International Programs by emailing oip@whitier.edu, or meet them in person at Planter Hall, Room 205.