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Cubans effusive about passion for baseball

Country's love for sport highlighted during Penn State's exhibition tour
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HAVANA, Cuba -- What does baseball mean?

It's a question that can prompt revelatory answers in Cuba, where the sport is so big there are nearly 48,000 organized teams at all levels, from those for 8-year-old boys and teenage girls to the Serie Nacionale, Cuba's top club league.

HAVANA, Cuba -- What does baseball mean?

It's a question that can prompt revelatory answers in Cuba, where the sport is so big there are nearly 48,000 organized teams at all levels, from those for 8-year-old boys and teenage girls to the Serie Nacionale, Cuba's top club league.

"Baseball season starts Jan. 1 and ends Dec. 31," Heriberto Suárez Pereda, director of Cuban baseball, joked at a sports convention Thursday.

While the actual season lasts from fall to spring, the chatter about baseball never stops, and it does not take much to get people to discuss the meaning of the game.

The Penn State baseball team concluded a rare four-game exhibition tour in Cuba on Saturday against the Matanzas in Victoria de Girón Stadium.

The college squad played its first contest of the trip, a 2-1 loss to the Industriales, on Monday at Estadio Latinoamericano. The team lost, 2-0, to Ciego de Ávila, the defending champions of the Serie Nacionale, on Wednesday, then traveled to Pinar Del Rio on Friday, when it defeated Mayabeque, 9-3.

Penn State is the first to compete in Cuba since the restoration of diplomatic ties earlier this year.

During the tour, the next step in the warming relations between Cuba and the United States, fans and participants opened up about their love of baseball.

Evyan Guerra, Cuban sports broadcaster
Before the first pitch is thrown, the last thing Guerra says is, "Comienza la pasion!" The passion is starting.

Life in the broadcast booth in Cuba is similar to the United States, where the on-air talent are supposed to stay impartial no matter whom they cheer for off duty.

Despite being a fan of the Cuban national team, Guerra says he puts his emotions aside when it's time to work.

"Since I couldn't be an athlete, I wrote in college about games," the broadcaster for Cuban sports network Telerebelde said through a translator. "And it has been 10 years now."

Guerra provides Cubans with entertainment, and says baseball gives them the best of times.

"There would be something missing without baseball," Guerra said, shrugging. "You can find any surprise in a baseball game. You can see tears and smiles, and you can be happy and suffer."

Yamilda Perez and her son, Josue, Industriales fans
For a fan of the team known as the Yankees of Cuba, watching baseball can be emotional.

Perez admits that she has cried, laughed and yelled at games.

"Baseball for me and my family is the air that we breathe," she said, looking toward the field at Estadio Latinoamericano. "When there is no baseball, we feel very bad, as if we are sick."

When not working in her store, Perez and her family follow Havana's Industriales.

"I go to the training and everywhere. I have built a relationship with them," the 43-year-old mother of two said, sitting next to her children.

Perez and her family have become friends with the team and take the time to snap photos when they see the players.

When not following the Industriales, Perez watches her 7-year-old son, Josue, play in a competitive travel team. To Josue, baseball is "very good" and he enjoys playing pitcher and catcher. Perez agreed with her son, and added that, without baseball, there is nothing.

Janet Moreno Mendinueta, female umpire
Being a female umpire is not easy, especially in a game most often played by men. But Moreno says baseball is her life.

"My father used to live behind right field of the Latinoamericano," Moreno said, pointing over her left shoulder.

Meet the only female umpire at Cuba's highest level of baseball

Her father used to bring her to baseball games as a child and feed her a bottle while in the stands.

"I would fall asleep and the roar of the crowd wouldn't wake me up," explained the ump. "I would sleep soundly until the next day."

Moreno played competitively until she became too old to compete in the Cuban system for women's baseball. Being an umpire was the only way to stay involved in the game she loves.

"I was practically born in a baseball stadium and I will die at a baseball stadium," Moreno said contently.

Alex Malinsky, Penn State catcher
"Baseball is my childhood."

To Malinsky, baseball was his youth and Penn State was his dream.

Malinsky's very first toy was a stuffed ball labeled, logically enough, "my first baseball."

From then on, he spent long hours playing catch in his North Carolina backyard with his dad.

"I bleed blue and white. I grew up a Penn State fan because my parents are alumni and a lot of my extended family attended the university," said Malinsky, who is trying to persuade his younger sister to play softball for the Nittany Lions.

He is working on his own game, too. Malinsky said his biggest struggle is keeping things simple.

"Everything becomes a reaction, and if I think too much I screw up," said the junior accounting major. "Whenever I play the game like I was a little kid, I end up doing the best I can."

Joel Elejalde, Industriales and Miami Marlins fan
Despite being Cuban and a Havana native, Elejalde is a diehard Marlins fan.

Elejalde lives for baseball and incorporates it in his everyday life.

"I do all my duties at home, for example, always listening to baseball on the radio," the 39-year-old candy merchant said.

While wearing a Boston Red Sox jersey and cheering for the Industriales as they defeated Penn State, Elejalde made it clear the Marlins are his favorite team.

"Since 1993 I have listened, and [one day] I discovered baseball games," Elejalde said. "The first game I ever listened to on the radio was the Miami Marlins."

From the first moment he heard the game, he became a fan of the Marlins, who at that time were the Florida Marlins. Even after a few rough seasons, the Marlins fan stays true.

Baseball is all, he says. Baseball gets him up in the morning and keeps him going on the job.

Madeline Shutt is a contributor to