Maidstoners' Week In Havana

March 18, 1999

    As the Baltimore Orioles wrangled over arrangements with the Cuban Government and the United States State Department for an exhibition game against the Cuban National League in Havana, scheduled now for March 28, a group of East Hampton ballplayers was in Cuba for some grassroots diplomacy of its own.

     Thirty members of the Maidstoners softball team, which gathers on seasonable Sundays at Maidstone Park in East Hampton for a game or two, some laughs, and a couple of beers, returned last week from Havana, where they played eight games over four days with Cuban teams, on neighborhood ballfields and at the Havana University stadium.

     The Maidstoners are an eclectic collection of East Enders, the latest in a protean group that has been meeting on the Maidstone Park diamond for more than 20 years.

Common Ground

     Team members range in age from mid-20s to mid-60s, and cover a wide swath of political and socioeconomic ground - from artists to small-business owners to landscapers and carpenters as well as a marketing executive, massage therapist, and chef.

     They immediately found common ground with their counterparts, on a muddy Cuban field, where the shared language of the game quickly banished doubts about the match and led to grins and spirited hugs, and on the streets, where the American players were trailed by little boys clutching balls of tape and sticks for bats who begged just to look at their mitts.

     The group, with a few friends in tow, including this writer, arrived in Havana on March 1. Heading to dinner along the waterfront under a full moon, in horse-drawn cabs, a sense of surrealism set in.

Started As A Joke

     What began as a joke during a "roast" of players after a Maidstoner-sponsored charity tournament last fall became a combination madcap adventure and goodwill trip that inspired the East Hamptoners to donate softballs, bats, T-shirts, hats, cleats, and even long-cherished gloves to their fellow softball aficionados in Cuba.

     Commenting on each player during the roast celebrating completion of the fund-raising tournament, during which the team played 26 games in 28 days, taking on all comers and raising $13,000 for the Child Development Center of the Hamptons, Thomas LaGrassa joked about Steve Day, another player.

     "He'll convince Peter Honerkamp to fly the whole team to Cuba for winter softball."

"Inspired Insanity"

     Mr. Honerkamp, whose idea to beat the Guinness Book of World Records listing for the longest softball game spawned the charity tournament, and who, as an owner of the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, has dreamed up and hosted numerous charity events, had planned a personal sojourn to Cuba and began investigating the possibilities.

     "He has a streak of the megalomaniac in him," noted one Maidstoner in confidence.

     "Peter is a maniac," said Reg Cornelia, a friend of Mr. Honerkamp who has played ball with the various incarnations of Maidstoners for more than 15 years. "He turned a dysfunctional mob into a cultural exchange mechanism. This is his most inspired act of insanity yet."

     Last fall's charity event, noted Mr. LaGrassa, "let us live together for 30 days in a row - win, lose, whatever. Without that, Cuba wouldn't have happened."

     "Things happened during that tournament that really didn't happen when we just played softball," said Jason Spielberg, another player. "It brought us a whole lot closer."

     During the course of several pre-trip meetings, the Maidstoners laughed at the idea of taking the group on the road - "an international incident in the making."

     "Castro sent us the Mariel boat people," joked Mr. Cornelia. "This is the revenge."

     Overcoming initial doubts, the participants became inspired to reach out to their Cuban counterparts as representative citizens of the U.S.A., and to create a unique set of memories.

     The cost was offset for those who couldn't afford it with contributions from several teammates and a benefit concert held at the Talkhouse.

Skepticism Faded

     With the help of a Cuban guide (who later commented, "I've never seen a group of so many crazy guys"), Mr. Honerkamp, whom the group began to call El Jefe, or Chief, and Mr. LaGrassa set up meetings with the managers of several Cuban teams during an organizational trip.

     Initial skepticism on the part of the Cuban ball teams gave way to enthusiasm when plans began to gel, until, during the visit, there were more teams clamoring to play the Norteamericanos than could be squeezed into the Maidstoners' schedule.

     There was nervous anticipation on both sides at the first softball game March 4, against a team comprised of employees of a perfume factory and a government rail yard, located   alongside the field. The rail yard was, the Americans were told, out of bounds for photographs.

"Like A Family"

     After official registration of the players and their positions with a Cuban league official, and some haggling over specific rules of play, the game began.

     At first, a member of the Cuban team told one Maidstoner his teammates "were not so sure what was what. But when they saw how you approached the game, like at a family picnic, they relaxed and had fun."

     "I was a bit nervous about how they would react to us," said Billy Strong, a Maidstoner, "but immediately it was great."

     "You play like a family," observed one Cuban friend who tagged along to the games.

Air Of Reality

     Despite the air of revelry, with musicians pumping out a salsa beat and warmth and smiles all around, a bit of Cuban reality set in. "Maybe you can explain to these guys how poor we are," Raoul, the Cuban team manager, asked a Maidstoner who spoke Spanish. He asked for any kind of help - maybe some clothes, some shoes.

     The Maidstoners had thought ahead, bringing duffel bags full of extra bats, balls, T-shirts, Yankee hats, and baseball pants. At the edges of the ballfields, hats were traded, shirts stripped off and handed over on the spot, and promises made to leave cleats and gloves when the games were done.

     Mr. Day handed out Little League bats to the young fans, and a 1988 official World Series baseball donated by Ed McKnight of Amagansett was given to one young man.

Apolitical

     Though the few fluent Spanish-speakers among the group were pressed into service as translators in Havana, most Maidstoners had no trouble communicating with their Cuban counterparts in the universal languages of sport and joie de vivre.

     "We are glad to meet with an American team," said a Cuban player named Ramon. "We want you to come again next year. You are good people and Cubans love very much the American people - not the Government, but the people."

     Did all his team members think playing the Americans a good idea? another team manager was asked.

     "Si, why not?" he replied. His team comprised relatively well-off Cubans, including some who work in a factory assembling calculators for Casio. "Because the sport doesn't have anything to do with politics."

Bacchanal

     The Maidstoners, matched against some of Havana's top-rated clubs, who are now participating in the Cuban National Series - teams stocked with serious athletes including a former National League fielder who played with El Duque Hernandez, a Cuban defector now on the Yankees - overcame a bit of a rough start.

     A planned practice session at an army field on the outskirts of Havana was scuttled when permission to use it was denied, and then a sudden strong gale blew up, making practice impossible in any event.

     And the headiness of being in Havana - trade winds blowing, a constant salsa beat, street life at all hours of the day and night, and rum-filled Mojitos - made for a bacchanalian first few days.

Time To Play Ball

     The Maidstoners hit Havana running, immediately finding nearby watering holes (dubbed Wolfie's and McKendry's after local hangouts), and generally engaging in a full-throttle good time.

     After the first day's 9-4 loss, the team, which hadn't played together in several months, regrouped, vowing to make a better showing.

     "We're here to have a good time, and to do a good thing," said Mr. Cornelia, one of the self-titled "council of elders" who gathered the group for a midweek talk. "The evidence that we're having a good time is in already," he added. "Now let's play some ball."

At The University

     Buckling down a bit, the 'Stoners acquitted themselves well in subsequent games, edging scores closer to a tie, and, finally, a winning 11-10.

     Despite an impressive collection of raspberries, pulled muscles, and even a fat lip, the mood remained ebullient on the field and off.

     The sole moments of real tension came on March 6, when an afternoon game was scheduled at Havana University. Under the listing metal canopy of the stadium a group of children gathered, cadging for gifts, pesos, dollars.

     Though from the American perspective everything seemed just fine, the university's athletic director felt things were getting out of hand and threatened to call the game off. Cubans, including ballplayer friends from teams the group had played, were banned from the stands.

Just Like Home

     The feeling during the final games, on March 7, was like that on a typical Sunday at Maidstone Park, with wives and girlfriends watching, children milling about, a barrelful of warm beer, and the sea, for a quick dip, nearby.

     "U.S.A." was etched in lime on the dirt, and the games began with renditions by both teams of their national anthems, while the others stood at attention, hats across their hearts.

     Clouds drifted between the Soviet-style high-rise apartments beyond the outfield, and trumpet notes competed with the staticky beat from a radio.

Long Rain Delay

     Between innings little clots of Maidstoners and Cubans formed: Addresses were exchanged along with promises to send equipment and sporting news, and photographs of new buddies were snapped.

     At the close of play, both teams posed behind a banner the Maidstoners brought along. "The 40-Year Rain Delay Is Over," it said, in English and Spanish, depicting the Cuban and American flags. In anticipation of the first visit by a Major League team since the Brooklyn Dodgers held exhibition games in Havana just after Castro took charge, the Maidstoners had gotten there first.

"A Good Thing"

     "Everyone I've seen since I've been back is still on a high," Mr. Honerkamp said on Monday. "I'm full of unrestrained joy. You don't get a lot of opportunities to do something good, something unique."

     Each of the Cuban managers, he said, had told him "that this is a major thing."

     "We think this is the step that institutes better relations between our countries," the Cubans told him.

     "We did something that was really fun," Mr. Honerkamp added. "We did it together, we became better friends, and we did a good thing."