HAVANA • With a swarm of young Cuban players around him, catcher Brayan Pena tugged a slender man wearing a bright red shirt into the midst and pointed toward him.
This, Pena said, this was the man who taught him to catch.
“I wanted to be a wrestler,” Pena said with a smile.
With the uncle who played shortstop for one of Havana’s most successful teams, an idol who caught for one of the teams, and his teacher all beside him, Pena participated in the first of two youth clinics Major League Baseball is hosting this week as part of its goodwill tour to Cuba. As many as 180 young players attended the first clinic Wednesday morning at Estadio Latinoamericano, the home of the Industriales. The ballpark, which holds 32,000, is painted bold and bright blue to reflect the team colors. It is, Pena said, “our Yankee Stadium.”
The ballpark was the home of the Havana Sugar Kings, a minor-league team in the International League before the embargo. The Sugar Kings were the affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds which is why, a tour guide and Cuba native said, there are some fans who still refer to the Reds as “our beloved Cincy.”
The Cardinals’ new backup catcher grew up 20 minutes from the ballpark, and it was closer to home that Luis Suarez Sanchez taught him how to catch.
“He has,” Sanchez said, “really developed.”
The eight active major-league players here in Cuba on the three-day visit all donned their jerseys, their official caps, and took the field for more than two hours with local youths. For Pena, the first time he wore a Cardinals jersey with his name and No. 29 on the back was in Cuba. Jon Jay had only worn a Cardinals jersey in his career until taking the field at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana to work with some outfielders in his new Padres jersey. The other players who participated were Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers, free agent Alexei Ramirez, Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, Seattle outfielder Nelson Cruz, and Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera.
The clinic drew fans as well as some of the most famous and renowned baseball players in Cuba. Each of the active major leaguers was given a former Cuban star to help them work with the kids.
Pena worked with Pedro Medina Ayon, the longtime catcher for Cuba’s national team. Pena introduced him to the young players as “his idol.” Medina played 17 seasons in Cuba and batted .295 with a .483 slugging percentage with 221 homers, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Also there working with the kids were Orestes Kindelan, Cuba’s home run king, and Pedro Luis Lazo. The hulking pitcher was the winner in the Gold Medal game back in the 1996 Olympic Games. Pena took time to introduce Rodolfo Puente to two U.S. journalists covering the events here, and explained how Puente was an eight-time champion and a regular on the Cuban national team for a decade. He was Pena’s uncle and helped raise him in the game.
“He’s like our Ozzie Smith,” Pena said grinning.
Watching from the sidelines was Lourdes Gourriel Jr., one of the rising stars in Cuba. He and his brother are part of baseball royalty on the island. He was talking with reporters about how his favorite players are Derek Jeter and Miguel Cabrera when Cabrera walked up behind him on the field to an ovation.
As big as the crowd was at the stadium, the one that greeted the players later in the day after their lunch was thicker.
Immediately after the clinic the players, some of them still wearing their jerseys, ate at the Floridita, a place made famous by Ernest Hemingway and the daiquiri. The order depends on your interest. There is a statue of Hemingway leaning against the bar in one corner and there are trays of daiquiris being delivered in every corner. The players had a private room in the back to eat, and during their lunch Joe Torre and Antonio Castro, Fidel’s son, sat near each other and talked.
Outside, a crowd grew.
The Floridita is a short walk from Parque Central, where there is the famous Esquina Caliente, or “Hot Corner.” It is here that Cubasn gather at the marble benches each day to argue and debate and celebrate and argue some more about baseball. It was empty mid-afternoon on Wednesday because it had been replaced for a moment by another hot corner, the one occupied by the Floridita. Some players, seeking to avoid the crowd, hopped on a shuttle taking the media back to their hotel.
Yasiel Puig found some quiet in the far back of that bus, lying on his back, out of sight.
He was still in his home white jersey and Dodger-issue socks.