By Benjamin Goggins
December 2 was a perfect day under the Cuban sun. My old friend Joe Kelley and I were in San Francisco de Paula (on a group trip) for a baseball game played on a storied field. In the light filtered through a wall of mango trees, with every crack of the commemorative Canadian-maple bats and pop of the gloves, you could hear Ernest Hemingway cheer the boys in his old front yard.
We were in Cuba visiting the many places associated with Hemingway. We were at the Museo Hemingway, the Finca Vigia, on that particular day to see the annual Gigi All-Stars exhibition baseball game and celebration.
We were there because we had read a very special book, The Homerun Kid: The True Story of Ernest Hemingway’s Baseball Team, by Oscar Blas Fernandez Mesa and Brian Gordon Sinclair. Mesa was the Homerun Kid; Sinclair, a Canadian, is the world’s foremost dramatic interpreter of Hemingway.
Mesa, who passed away last year at the age of 86, was forever known locally as Cayuco Jonronero, the nickname given him by Hemingway in 1940. The book is his memoir of the magical days of summer for thirteen poor local boys who became the Gigi All-Stars.
Gigi was the nickname of Hemingway’s youngest son Gregory, and Hemingway became the patron of the team that also included his son Patrick.
The book captures the innocence and excitement of youth as Cayuco tells stories of Hemingway’s generosity and paternal joy. How they chose their team name after Gigi’s pitching in a tight game. How Hemingway bought them uniforms and Cayuco got to pick his own number – five, like his hero Joe DiMaggio. How they slept in their uniforms when they first received them. How he looked to Hemingway as his Magi, a bringer of goodness, who showed them how to practice, to work, to behave.
He says, “After eight decades, no Gigi All-Star ever had a problem with discipline or the law.” The book gives a glimpse into the love that flowed both ways between the author and the kids.
Cayuco says humbly at the end of the book; “To paraphrase a certain writer, if you are lucky enough to have played baseball with Ernest Hemingway, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for baseball is a moveable game.”
Five years ago, Sinclair revived Hemingway’s Christmas tradition of hosting the game at the Finca, telling stories and giving presents to the players. So the All-Stars came to life again with a new, just-as-devoted, patron.
After the game, before the cake was cut and punch was served, Sinclair read a tribute to Cayuco, echoing Cayuco’s words of how Hemingway had come into his heart. Then every boy received a new cap, book, certificate, personal card and present.
Finca Vigia means Lookout Farm. Hemingway’s beautiful boat Pilar sits there now. From the Museo you can see the Gulf Stream, where she fished out of the village of Cojimar.
We had lunch in Cojimar with local fisherman Geori Lopez. The limes that he brought from his home were perfect to squeeze on our grilled lobster.
The connection that Hemingway felt to the place is still in the salt air. Lopez said that years ago, on the evening after he caught his first amberjack, he read The Old Man and the Sea. And that it prepared him for the way he would feel after he caught his first blue marlin. He pointed to the goose bumps on his arm as he recalled the long battle, working the line by hand, not rod and reel, to bring in the great fish.
The year after Hemingway’s death, Cojimar’s fisherman collected pieces of anchors, propellers, and tackle to cast a bronze memorial. That bust of Hemingway, by Cuban sculptor Fernando Martin, looks out past an old Spanish fort, toward the Gulf Steam.
Hemingway donated his Nobel Prize for Literature to the church of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre. The patron saint of Cuba, she too is connected to the sea; her shrine commemorates her calming the waters and saving the lives of two Native Americans and an African slave in 1612.
In Cojimar Hemingway shared stories with working fisherman at La Leonera, the Lion’s Den. The last lines of The Old Man and the Sea read: “Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions.”
After the game and party at Finca Vigia, through the generosity of Brian Sinclair and the legacy of Cayuco, a lot of Gigi All-Stars probably dreamed of lions.