Five years ago, Ian Padrón made a documentary about Cuban baseball and ran afoul of government censors.
He took government money from the Cuban Film Institute and told a story about Cuban baseball, "Out of this League" ("Fuera de Liga").
In his daring piece of work, Padrón touched on a number of taboo subjects. He looked at the tough conditions players face on the island and included interviews with athletic icons who defected to the United States to play Major League Baseball.
No surprise, government censors considered it too controversial for the Cuban public. So it ended up on a shelf – barred from playing in state-run theaters or on television.
Which can often backfire in communist Cuba – anything censored often becomes an overnight success. Cubans love nothing better than passing around forbidden material.
In fact, "Out of this League" became one of the hottest pieces of contraband circulating on Cuba's underground market. Lots of people here in Cuba saw the 68-minute film.
Still, Padrón was frustrated.
|Cubans play baseball in a park in Havana.|
"My work deserved a wider audience. I always argued that the Cuban public is more than capable of debating our reality," said Padrón.
Finally, someone in authority seemed to agree with him.
Out of the blue, "Out of this League" aired on Saturday night primetime TV – making television history here.
It's not often government censors change their minds.
It also marks the first time state-owned television ran images of defectors, considered turncoats by the Cuban government.
El Duque: 'I am an Industrial"
Baseball fans are delighted by the change of heart, especially loyalists who follow the career of Havana pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, who fled the island in 1997 for fame and fortune in the United States.
"This documentary is about baseball, our lives, our passion. It never should have been banned," said Karel Breto, a 27-year-old maintenance man. "El Duque belongs to us!"
That sentiment echoes what Hernandez said in the film.
"I am not a traitor. I am an Industrial," said Hernandez, referring to "Los Industriales," Havana's champion team."I've had the opportunity to play for the two best teams in the world: Cuba's Industriales and the Yankees." (Since the documentary was filmed, Hernandez signed on with the New York Mets and now plays for them).
|Roberto Leon / NBC News|
|In Havana's Parque Central, Alex Medina (left) and Rafael Betancourt (right) passionately debate which Cuban baseball team is the best.|
At the time of his defection, Hernandez had posted a 129-47 career record for the national team but was under suspension. Sports officials had accused Hernandez of being in contact with U.S. agents who had helped other ballplayers leave the island to chase major league dreams.
Some of them appear in the documentary too: first baseman Kendry Morales, now a Los Angeles Angel; Rene Arocha, who pitched with the St. Louis Cardinals; and Euclides Rojas, who played for the Florida Marlins before becoming a bullpen coach for the Boston Red Sox.
Official censors never managed to discourage baseball fans here from continuing to follow the American careers of the men they consider true Cuban athletes.
No politics in baseball
In fact, for many Cuban fans, politics has no place in baseball. The game surpasses government.
"Forget politics. Baseball is my passion and I spend my time rooting for El Duque and our other players in the major leagues," said Ulises Alvarez, a Havana construction worker who commended Cuban TV for broadcasting "Out of this League."
Some Cubans see the broadcast as proof that times are changing in Cuba, a trend of greater tolerance and deliberate debate that began when Fidel Castro fell ill and his brother Raul became acting president some 18 months ago.
"TV has begun to tackle some harsh realities: housing shortages, problems in some hospitals, and in food production. Topics no one dared to touch before," said Ismael Sene, a retired diplomat and Cuba's baseball historian. "I see this as part of the general policies of the last few months. It's the only way I can explain why they aired the documentary."
But others think that may not be the case.
"Nothing has changed here," said a Western diplomat who asked not to be identified by name. "You still get chastised for telling unpopular truths."
No matter what, in a nation where the government maintains strict media control, "Out of this League" was not broadcast by accident. And while it's too soon to tell if this is an isolated event or heralds a new artistic opening, fans here agreed with El Duque when he described the showing to the Miami press as "a breath of fresh air."