Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Back from Spring Training - how do they look?

Fort Myers is much nicer in March than Boston is.

It's not just that 80 and sunny is more fun than 30 and blustery with a blizzard in the forecast. Even if that blizzard never shows up. They have baseball going on.

jetBlue Park is such a nice, relaxed place. The official name is jetBlue Park at Fenway South. Looks just like Fenway on TV, but not when you look at the stands. 10,000 seats instead of 38,000, so you're closer to the game. Wider, more comfortable seats. Certainly better than the blue wood ones in the Fenway grandstand. Parking is $10. Better than $40. No commuter rail or T option, of course, but they do have golf cart shuttles to take old folks and parents with little kids to their cars which are parked on soccer fields about a mile away.

They have the Pesky Pole in right.

The stands jutting out after 3rd base, the triangle in center, the Green Monster. The jetBlue Monster has the actual scoreboard that was in the wall at Fenway from 1969 until 2003. I know what you're thinking...why did they change it? Here's why. From the time Fenway was built in 1912 until 1961 there were only 16 teams: 8 American League and 8 National League. That's 8 games at a time to fit on the scoreboard. Easy peasy, even for a hand-operated scoreboard. Between 1961 and 1969 expansion grew that number to 24, which just did not fit on the scoreboard. So the original scoreboard that you see in the old Ted Williams pictures was replaced with one that only featured the American League. That's the one you see now at jetBlue. When the John Henry group took over in 2002 they added the Monster Seats and replaced the scoreboard with an almost identical one, but wider, so the National League is back on it. With Interleague play every night you really have to do that. Plus, the faux Green Monster is 3 feet taller and also has three rows of seats halfway up.

Which I sat in for one game.

Pretty cool, I must say. Well, not actually cool, but you're in shade. It's a different view, and you really appreciate how much territory the center fielder has to cover.

So how to do they look?

They won every game I saw. Beat the Phillies, Rays, Pirates and Astros. Saw Chris Sale pitch. Also David Price, Joe Kelly, Carson Smith, Craig Kimbrel, Brandon Workman, Brian Johnson (who wound up making the rotation), and a guy named Trevor Kelley who, unlike Joe, spells his name correctly, but is not on the 40-man roster. They all looked good. Highly touted Jalen Beeks did himself no favors by giving up gave up 7 runs in the 1st inning with only one out. In one game they were losing 5-2 going into the bottom of the 9th. In case you haven't been to sprig training, by the 7th inning none of the regulars are still in the game. It's a bunch a scrubs, as they say, wearing numbers like 98 with no name on their back. So in the bottom of the 9th these guys you've never heard of - but might in a couple of years - had back-to-back-to-back doubles, then a triple and a walkoff single to win it, 5-4. That was fun.

How about the killer B's?

Great. Betts is clearly back. Benentendi never really went away. When they announce him it sounds like three guys are at bat simultaneously: Andrew, Ben and Tendy. Bogaerts was a little iffy defensively, but it looks like his injured hand is all better and his bat is clearly hot. Blake Swihart, who was out of options and might have been on the trading block, made the big team. Brock Holt, who had vertigo and concussion issues last year, played so well that he secured his utility role and Devin Marrero (great glove, can't hit) was traded to San Diego. Oh, yes...JBJ. Great D, as always, but he hit a lowly .158 with zero HR’s. That’s bad, even for him.

And the other guys?

The new slugger in town, JD Martinez, didn’t hit any HR’s (that’s what he was brought in to do,right?) but looked very good otherwise, hitting .319 with an OPS of .794. Rafael Devers is improving his footwork at 3rd and still has that sweet swing. Christian Vazquez has played so well that he got a 3-year contract extension. Hanley Ramirez looks a little better (.283 with one homer) but will have to work hard to get those 497 plate appearances to guarantee his $22 million deal for 2019. Don't bet on that happening unless Hanley really lights it up.

They play “Dirty Water” after a win.

But then they replace Fenway staple “Tessie” by the Dropkick Murphys with “Happy Trails to You” by Roy Rogers for the old folks. Roy Rogers was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a little kid and I sang along on the way out. I wasn’t the only one.

Opening Day is tomorrow in Tampa Bay.

I’m psyched - especially for next Thursday when they open at Fenway. All the snow should be gone by then.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Cuba...the rest of the story

Part dos of my Cuba adventure.

If you enjoy live music, you're in for a treat. It's everywhere.

.Don't ask if they know Guantanamera.

That's like asking a band at home if they know Happy Birthday. Every band sings Guantanamera. In every set. Every time. Guantanamera, which was a top 10 hit song in the US by The Sandpipers (Billboard Hot 100 #9 on 7/30/1966), is probably the best-known of any Cuban song. Part of the lyrics come from a patriotic poem by Jose Marti, the National Hero of Cuba (see the description of his 164th birthday party rally and parade in part uno of the blog). You should tip the band, of course. If you're in a restaurant - outdoor or indoor - one of the singers will come up to your table after the set and ask if you'd like to buy one of their CD's. The tip and any CD sales is probably all they get.

Driving around in Havana.

Traffic is not that busy. Lots of people are walking around and hanging in doorways. At night there's hardly any traffic, very few lights, basically no stores and hardly any signs.

With one notable exception.

Floridita Restaurante.

It's a restaurant and bar - mostly bar - where Ernest Hemingway hung out ordering daiquiris so frequently that the government let them keep the neon sign and put up a bronze statue of him sitting at the bar.

Hemingway was famous for saying writers should use small words instead of big ones.

When I asked him about that he didn't say much at all.

Out in the country.

We headed out west to Pinar del Rio where they roll cigars by hand. Looks like pretty tedious work, but when you get back home everyone will ask you if you brought back any Cuban smokes. Along the highway - a four lane divided highway with a grass median - you see vast farmland with horses and cows grazing. It seems like they have as much grass to chew as they could possibly want, but the horses and cows are all skinny. Maybe the grass there doesn't taste that great. You also see horse-drawn wagons trotting down the slow lane hauling bales of hay or whatever. Even some with oxen doing the hauling. My observation is that the horses trot along and look like they're having a pretty good time, but the oxen just slog along and look bored.


Of course. Beautiful clean sand, gently rolling waves of pure blue water.

In terms of beach attire, people are pretty relaxed. The European effect is clearly there. Remember, most tourists are not from the US.

What about the people? Do they like Americans?

They're incredibly nice. Everyone you pass has a smiling "Hola" for you. And they love having Americans visit after all those decades. But it isn't as easy now as it was last year. The Trump rollbacks were designed to keep American dollars out of the hands of the Cuban Government. But as I wrote on part uno of this blog, no one in Havana is whipping out an Amex Gold Card or even a pile of $20 bills. No plastic is accepted and no American money. So the only ones who really get hurt are the people like Alejandro who drive you around in that 1954 Chevy.

Or Pedro, who owns the casa where we stayed.

Was it worth it?

Absolutely. The most interesting trip I've taken in a long time.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Cuba Libre

You see it and hear it all over the place in Havana.

One year ago, on January 21st, we flew from JFK to Havana. It was the first full day of the Trump presidency and we were headed out of the US and to a Communist country. It actually wasn't a political statement. This trip was planned months in advance.

You needed a State Department excuse.

Today this would not work, but we were on a painting trip. Painting as in art, not houses.

In Cuba nobody paints their casa.

For good reason. You don't own it. You can own the inside, much like a condo, and you can make that as nice as you can afford to. But the building itself - the outside - is owned by the government. Whatever it cost to paint it, you'd never get your money back.

Cash only, por favor.

There are no credit cards, no ATM's. You can safely leave home without your Amex Gold Card because it's not accepted anywhere on the island. Same with US Dollars. We had to go to Bank of America in our home town and exchange dollars for Euros, then exchange the Euros for CUC's (Cuban Convertible Currency) in Havana.

The Embargo.

JFK instituted the embargo back in 1962, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Obama loosened things up a little back in 2015, but there is still nothing American in Cuba. There are no stores to speak of. The few little bodegas have no sign and very little inside. They're small, dark and have shelves that are mostly empty. There's a lot of bartering...if the store has bread the day you go in, you might buy two loaves and then swap one to someone else who was lucky enough to go there on the day they had milk.

Bring your own TP.

Seriously. They sell flat rolls of it on Amazon and you should pack a few. When you go to use the banyo at a restaurant in Cuba you'll find that there's 1) no toilet paper 2) no seat 3) a lady sitting outside at a small desk who will charge you one CUC for the privilege. Bring your own toothpaste and shampoo and nail clipper, because there's no Walgreen's at the corner of happy and healthy to buy them.

Lukewarm spots.

You never see a newspaper stand. Or anyone reading a newspaper. CNN is on TV, but it's en espanol and from either Puerto Rico or Mexico. Spanish FM pop music stations are from Miami. The Internet is not allowed in homes in Cuba. You can find a few wifi hotspots (I called them lukewarm spots because they're only in a few small parks in the city and they're in "Slooowwwsky" mode). To get access you have to go to a government kiosk. No sign saying that's what it have to ask someone...and buy an internet access card.

You have to have to show them your passport and visa to get one. It's good for two hours. When you find a lukewarm spot to try and log in you'll eat up half of your precious two hours watching the "pinwheel of death" while it tries to connect. Once it does, don't read anything. Just download it and read offline later. Data is about $35 an hour. Remember, the average Cuban makes about $20 a month, or about 11 cents an hour. That's not a joke.

But Cubans are happy and healthy.

We had a fabulous tour guide who gave us the inside scoop on a lot of how things work there. He said, "There's a lot of poverty, but no misery." Health care is free. At Havana University there is no tuition. You have no be smart enough to get in, but you come out with zero student debt.

Nothing is American...except cars.

Only old ones. As old as 1946, and nothing newer than 1959, the year that Fidel Castro took over. Most are 1952-1957. Lots of Chevys and Fords, but also a decent number of Buicks, Dodges and Plymouths. Even an occasional Studebaker, DeSoto, Packard or Henry J. Some are beautifully restored convertibles, especially in the touristy Old Havana area. Others are just old cars that are still chugging away after 60 years. Some are cobbled together with non-original parts. Say you're driving a 1951 Plymouth and you blow out a rear light. There's no Auto Zone where you can buy a new one. You have to make it yourself.

We had a driver for the week with a 1954 Chevy Bel Air.

Mileage to the moon and back. Manual transmission, three by the knee. The radio was AM only (nobody had FM in 1954 and there was nothing on it anyway) and it hadn't worked for a long time. The tubes had worn out and could not be replaced. Leaded fuel only, of course.

As you head down street after street you can see that Havana was like Paris...about 100 years ago. There aren't that many vehicles. People walk around all over the place. There are no electric signs - really no signs at all. There are no ads anywhere. No trash. No grafitti. No billboards, except an occasional political one with a slogan from Che Guevara.

"The word teaches, the example guides"

That's actually inspirational more than political, but I didn't know that when I took the picture.

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are revered.

There are pictures of them all over the place. At the Museum of the Revolution you hear stories about how horrible things were under Fuljencio Batista and how everything got better under Castro. You hear about the Cuban Missile Crisis from their viewpoint, how Castro invited Khruschev to put missiles in Cuba because he believed the US was going at attack Cuba. After all, the CIA had tried that the year before.

The bullet holes in this truck are from the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Tell me more about Cuba Libre.

It's on buildings, flags, t-shirts everywhere. It actually doesn't refer to the 1954-1959 revolution, it refers to the liberation of Cuba from 406 years of Spanish rule in 1898. Cuba had been a colony of Spain ever since Christopher Columbus landed there in 1492. This Cuba Libre war is what we know as the Spanish-American War, but in Cuba it was a guy named Jose Marti who is considered the National Hero for his part in the fight. We were at a huge rally for his 164th birthday. Raul Castro spoke, Jumbotron and all, and easily 10,000 marchers with torchlights (a candle in an empty soup can on top of a stick), "26 Julio" flags (July 26th is the day the Castro-Guevara Revolution began in 1954) and "Cuba Libre" flags followed him down to the waterfront.

Raul's limo went right in front of us. Like 8 feet away tops. The next day our tour guide was saying, "Wow, you saw Raul?"

But the real Cuba Libre... a rum and Coke. Or today, a rum and Cuba Cola. If you do get an actual Coca-Cola it's from Mexico, not Atlanta. Rum is the official drink of Cuba, and the official rum is Havana Club. I mentioned earlier that there are no ads anywhere...there is one big exception: every glass in every restaurant has a Havana Club logo.

How did rum and Coke become a Cuba Libre?

In the 1800's Cubans drank rum neat. After the Spanish-American War ended Coca-Cola started marketing in Cuba and named the Coke mixed with rum drink after the revolution. Thus, Cuba Libre. In The Godfather II scene in Havana Fredo orders one. Standard drink fare is Havana Club, El Ron de Cuba. "Oscuro, de 7 anos, dos, sin hielo." That's the dark stuff, 7-year-old, 2 shots, neat.

How's the food?

Great. The first night I ordered a shrimp dish (on their menus it says "shrimps" - that way you know you're not getting just one - and I also asked if I could get some rice and beans with it. The waiter looked at me as if I had asked if I could have it served on a plate. It turns out that rice and beans (you don't have to call them Cuban beans - of course they're Cuban) come with everything you order anywhere on the island. This is not like a "do you want fries with that?" question. It doesn't matter whether you like're getting rice and beans, period! Exclamation point at the end and an upside down one at the beginning. Lots of beef, seafood, chicken. Octopus salad, which I actually tried.

Yes, that actually says "Fish doughnut covered with banana" on the menu. Hey, Mr. Tally-man tally me banana, and put it on a fish doughnut, por favor. Or...I'd like the fish doughnut. Can you put a banana on it? Si. Of course you get rice and beans with it as well. Okay, I didn't try've got to draw the line somewhere. But I did try the Pollo ChaChaCha. Mike Ehrmantraut and Mr. White would approve.

Lots of outdoor dining.

It's warm, there don't seem to be any bugs, and the stray dogs who are all over the place aren't that big and don't bother you while you eat.

One place had the menu items in Russian.

If you want to order "Tastes of the mountain the Cuban way" in Russian there's how you do it.

Breakfast in the Casa.

Outdoors on the roof, made specially by the Senorita de Casa. An omlette (Cuban, of course...she held the cheese at my request), fruit, juice, small cup of coffee with steamed milk.

So much more to say.

Like about how they have live music practically everywhere. I'll do it in the next post.