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|| News Item: Posted 1999-05-17

Fidel, Havana and Baseball
By Roberto Borea, Associated Press

The opportunity to cover the Baltimore Orioles playing the Cuban national team in an exhibition baseball game in Havana last month was a thrill for me since I had never been to Cuba before.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case when on assignment, I had no time to myself to explore the city. But what I did get to see impressed me and left me with a strong appetite for a return visit.

We flew over on a 45-minute charter flight from Miami International Airport on the afternoon of Friday, March 26, 1999. I was way overloaded with equipment because I had to carry in extra gear for the AP's newly opened bureau in Havana. In addition, I had no idea what photo positions would be like at the stadium, never having seen it before. Like a good sherpa, I dragged two full Cabbage Cases, a Lightware bag with a 500mm Canon lens, a knapsack full of computer equipment and a bag with clothing to the terminal that our information packet from Major League Baseball told us to report to.

Photo by Roberto Borea/AP

Photo by Roberto Borea/AP
There I found a group of around 25 other reporters and photographers awaiting the flight. As the deadline for checking in passed with no one showing up at the counter to process us, it slowly dawned on us that we had been given some bad information. A hurried phone call revealed that we were in fact at the wrong terminal, leading to a mad scramble from one end of the airport to the other.

After finally arriving at the right terminal, we were greeted by rather dour officials from U.S. Customs who handed out page-long instructions of does and don'ts for complying with the terms of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. I was interrogated as to why I was taking in $2,000 in cash for a three-day trip, which far exceeded the legal $87 per-day per diem. I explained that the AP bureau in Havana instructed me specifically to bring this sum, a
prudent request given the fact that American checks and credit cards are utterly useless in Cuba. Everything from meals to hotels to phone calls at $4 per minute had to be paid in cash. Finally I was allowed to proceed with stern instructions that under no circumstances was I to bring back more than $100 worth of Cuban goods to the U.S.

In contrast to the stern treatment from U.S. Customs, I found people throughout Cuba, from government officials down to the man on street to be warm and friendly. I and the fellow AP staffers on the charter flight were greeted at the airport by Anita Snow, the AP bureau chief in Havana, who was kind enough to personally drive us around to take care of assorted tasks we needed to accomplish to get ready for the game.

Anita, who did a great job of preparing for our arrival, instructed us to bring over our cell phones and have them reprogrammed by CubaCell so we would have wireless communications in Cuba. This proved to be a very wise decision. After paying a $60 per-person fee to get credentialed, we checked into the Hotel Victoria, a small but very pleasant hotel that was our home for the duration. I preferred it to the much larger, more commercial Havana Libre hotel where a lot of the U.S. media was staying.

AP writers Ben Walker, Dave Ginsburg and I hopped into a cab and drove over to Latinoamerica Stadium Friday evening to take in a playoff game between Los Industriales and Santiago. My rudimentary skills in Spanish, with an added helping of phrases in my more familiar Italian were adequate to the task of communicating and getting around. I was a hero for Ben and Dave, especially later at the restaurant when ordering dinner.

The scene at the stadium was unlike any I have ever encountered at any baseball park in the U.S. Cubans take their baseball very seriously. Wading into the stands to sit with the fans and shoot features, including one very colorful partisan clad in a lion's head is a memory I'll always cherish.

I can't imagine doing the same thing, plunking myself down in someone's seat, standing up and blocking the view to make a shot in the wine and cheese crowd at Camden Yards. Photographers fortunate enough to arrive earlier in the week said that the earlier games were even more colorful, including scantily clad women dancing atop the dugouts. By contrast, the crowd attending Sunday's game involving the Orioles, was a more subdued
by-special-invitation crowd.

Security throughout the stands was very tight, with police moving quickly to eject potential troublemakers. Despite security searches of fans entering the stadium, some resourceful individuals were successful sneaking in prohibited alcohol. When I attempted to photograph one fan being physically carried out of the stands, my lens was filled with a policeman's hand.

On Saturday I worked with Ben on a story about the park in Havana where Cubans gather to emotionally argue about baseball all day long. Again it was a memorable scene. If you don't speak Spanish and watch the people carrying on, you would think a fight was about to break out at any second.

My next assignment was to cover the arrival of the first group of Orioles in Havana. A group of six playerspassed through the airport with no worthy photo to show for it. Then we learned that they were driving from the airport to a park where they would greet American and Cuban Little Leaguers. This sounded a lot more promising.

Dave Ginsburg, Nanine Hartenbusch of the Baltimore Sun and I hopped in a cab and instructed the driver to drive to the address we were given. There we found an empty park with no Little Leaguers. With a sinking feeling settling in, I remembered that I had been lucky enough to get the cell phone number of Orioles PR John Maroon and, after reaching him using my cell phone, we managed to arrive at the correct location just as the
players were pulling up. This was just one instance where Anita's recommendation to have a cell phone really paid off.

Finally, Saturday night I covered Fidel Castro greeting Bud Selig, commissioner of Major League Baseball, Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, and other American VIPs at the National Palace.

After arriving at the palace we placed our equipment in a room where it was swept. A security official came out of the room with two baseballs in hand and asked who the owner was and why they were there. The response came that the owner was hoping for an autograph from Fidel. The photographer was allowed to keep the balls, but unfortunately Fidel did not oblige.

Surprisingly, we were never physically searched, nor did we pass through a magnetometer. The event itself was your basis five-minute photo spray with Fidel, clad in his customary fatigues shaking hands with the U.S. delegation. No great photos here, but it was still exciting to be in Havana's National Palace in such close proximity of America's nemesis. For me it was a major disappointment trying to photograph the event illuminated in tungsten light using the DCS3 digital cameras, which produce that ghastly pink flesh tone.

I covered the game Sunday with Jose Goitia, the AP's staff photographer in Havana and John Moore, an AP staffer from Mexico City. Our plan was for me to concentrate on covering the game, while Jose concentrated on Fidel Castro and John keyed on fan reaction.

Photo by Roberto Borea/AP

Photo by Roberto Borea/AP
We were tossed a few curve balls, which wrinkled our plans. I shot the Orioles pregame activities on the field on a digital camera and gave the disc to John with the intention of having him file some images from his laptop via the phone line we had installed in the press box. Unfortunately, for some reason the disc caused his laptop to crash and he was unable to retrieve any images until after the game.

I covered the game itself from a photo position behind the Orioles dugout on the first base side of the field. The size of the stadium was a surprise. I could easily have used a 600mm lens to cover home plate and second base; instead I settled for a 500mm.

At the conclusion of the pre-game workouts by both teams, Fidel suddenly and without ceremony walked out of the Cuban team's dugout and began striding across the field. I have a shot of him walking behind a groundskeeper laying down the left field foul line. I followed him with my long lens, assuming he'd stop at the pitcher's mound to throw out the first ball. The realization that he was in fact walking all the way across the field to greet the Orioles immediately in front of us led to a mad scramble to grab a short lens and leap onto the roof of the dugout. I got one frame of Fidel shaking hands with Albert Belle before the scene was cluttered up with the damned boom microphones held by an on-field television camera crew from Major League Baseball.

Since the game started at 12pm EST and John was shooting the game with one of the new DCS 520 cameras, I chose to shoot the game on film, preferring to avoid using the older, slower DCS3. We had arranged for a messenger to take my film back to the bureau for processing, with the plan that I would handle the editing and transmitting after the game ended.

Once again, our best-laid plans went astray. The game went into extra innings and dragged on for over four hours. On top of that, John ran into trouble with the phone lines and had great difficulty filing digital images from the stadium. As a result, we did not file our report as quickly and smoothly as we would have liked. I understand other news organizations also ran into trouble with phone lines from the stadium and the media center. Once I got back to the bureau I had no trouble filing, since we were filing via FTP, using a local internet provider.

The game itself was pretty routine. The main photos that got played were Fidel greeting the Orioles and sitting behind home plate with Angelos and Selig, as well as the teams on the field with their respective national flags during the anthems. With the Orioles holding a 2-0 lead, the fans were silent until the Cubans scored their first run in the seventh inning,
at which point they erupted.

After the game it was a tense, mad scramble to get back to the AP bureau, located on the Malecon in Old Havana. Our departure from the stadium was delayed as the streets were shut down while Fidel departed. The newly opened bureau is in a well-renovated old building and is well equipped. Dell desktops were installed immediately before our arrival. And the refrigerator was well stocked with Cuban Crystal beer and their legendary Anejo rum for when the day was done.

My only regret from the trip was that I didn't have more time to explore. Staying strictly within the prescribed U.S. Customs $100 limit, my shopping was limited to some hurried purchases of rum, cigars and coffee at the airport.

(Roberto Borea is a staff photographer for the AP, based in Baltimore.)

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