Out of the ballpark

Anthropologist Thomas Carter's passion for baseball led him to explore the game's special significance for Cuba in The Quality of Home Runs. He gives Matthew Reisz the rundown

April 30, 2009

Thomas Carter's life, he says, has been "spent in a love affair with baseball".

He was an excellent amateur who pitched for St Cloud State University in Division II of the US intercollegiate league and dreamt of a professional career before realising he just didn't have the talent to beat the horrendous odds.

"Out of all the young athletes who play high-school sports, it's something like 1 in 7,000-8,000 who make it to university level," he notes. "Only 1 in 1,000-1,500 of those make it to professional level."

Instead, he became an anthropologist - with a special interest in sport. He has just published his first book, The Quality of Home Runs: The Passion, Politics, and Language of Cuban Baseball.

The book begins with a poignant glimpse of the moment when, staring across the yawning chasm between the pitcher's mound and home plate, Carter realised it was time to call it a day. But it soon becomes clear that baseball offers an extremely interesting angle for exploring cubanidad, US-Cuban relations ... and non-relations.

Big games, Carter says, inevitably "become a performance of what it is to be Cuban, when you get 50,000 people in a stadium, and 3 million watching the game on television out of a population of 11 million".

This can hardly be separated from contemporary geopolitics. Baseball may have been Cuba's national sport for 150 years, but the current passion for it also reflects a tension between a fascination with the US (where many emigre Cubans play professionally) and a desire to beat the Americans at their own game. "The big Other for Cubans is the United States," Carter says.

The two-game exhibition series between the Cuban national team and the Baltimore Orioles in March and May 1999 - the first held in Havana and narrowly won by the US team, and the return leg in Baltimore, where Cuba triumphed - was "a big deal for Cubans, wherever they were, and for the Cuban Government; but it wasn't a big deal for the US Government.

"It was a momentary curiosity for baseball fans across the States, but it had nothing to do with their notion of themselves as American."

But although the US naturally looms larger in the Cuban imagination than the reverse, Fidel Castro and his regime remain important objects of hate for many Americans. Is life there, as some seem to believe, almost uniquely awful and constrained? Baseball fans provide an interesting test case.

"Some American rhetoric portrays Cubans as so repressed and afraid that they can't actually speak out, but if you go to any of the main stadiums and watch these guys arguing about baseball, they are also arguing about everything under the sun - the whole notion of the silent Cuban is absolutely ludicrous," Carter says. "Anyone who goes to Havana and walks around will know that."

Sports grounds everywhere are places "where men are allowed to show emotion and still be considered masculine". But this plays out rather differently in Cuba and the US.

Although American "fans and players recognise there is an inherent violence to baseball", Carter says, they tend to see it as "a nostalgic game".

In Cuba, however, it has acquired a rather different set of meanings. In colonial times, baseball came to represent a form of "gentility", linked to modernity and progress, which distinguished it from the "barbaric" sport of bullfighting. The Spanish, realising it could provide impetus to the island's fight for independence, banned the sport.

In more recent times, Carter argues, Cuban "baseball and politics have become completely intertwined and intermixed, and that has been made explicit since the Revolution". Its image remains both martial and political, as "a very strategic sport linked to the idea of struggle against the odds ... one person confronting a whole array of other people trying to stop him doing what he wants to do". Sport, in other words, is tightly entangled with revolutionary values and narratives.

"When Castro's revolutionaries swarmed into Havana," writes Carter, "one of their first activities was to engage in a series of exhibition baseball games to demonstrate the Cubanness of the Revolution's leaders."

Che Guevara, an Argentine by birth with little or no experience of the ballpark, made a point of learning the basics, playing and going along to watch. The present alliance between Cuba and Venezuela was sealed by a baseball game in 1999, in which Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, took part. Castro, excusing himself from pitching on grounds of age, nonetheless offered to manage his national team.

In The Quality of Home Runs, Carter examines the links between baseball, the idea of "home" built into the game and its deeper resonances, the ways that "going back to a particular stadium feels like coming home", with baseball "part of the home - Cuba - that emigre Cubans take with them wherever they go".

It also considers the contrasting opportunities for black athletes in Cuba and the US before the era of desegregation. And, despite the seriousness of many of his themes, Carter has a sharp anthropologist's eye for the colourful detail of baseball fandom: the catcalls, the competing clans of supporters, the poems combining political satire with sexual bravado. The book could have been written only by someone with a deep love for the game.

What is rather more surprising, perhaps, is that it was completed in Eastbourne, Sussex. Carter moved to the UK in 2001, when he took up a postdoctoral scholarship at the School of Anthropological Studies at Queen's University Belfast.

The post, funded by the Sports Council of Northern Ireland, required him to investigate transnational migration in the sports industry in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement. This remains one of his major areas of research.

Carter moved from there to the University of Wales, Newport, and thence to the southeast coast of England. For the past three years, he has worked as senior lecturer and course leader in sport and leisure management at the Eastbourne campus of the University of Brighton. It is safe to assume that local baseball fans, Cuban emigres and anti-Castro pundits are pretty few and far between.

Yet his decision to work in this country reflects an important difference between the US and the UK. Despite the much tighter links between university and professional sport in the US, Carter believes that serious academic study of sport is "much more marginalised" there and that British "social science programmes on sport are probably 10 to 15 years ahead".

Far too often, Carter says, sport is "still seen as something frivolous" by anthropologists and sociologists, particularly in the US. "You don't work at sport. Nobody is said to be 'working'. They are playing. Sport is not about 'real life'."

And once sport is seen as trivial, Carter observes, it can lead to fans being "both underrepresented and misrepresented in social science literature", perceived merely as "deranged losers or hysterically violent mobs".

None of this applies in quite the same way in the UK, where the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (something that doesn't exist in the US) brings the subject right into the heart of government, notably in social-intervention programmes such as those dealing with at-risk youths. Partly as a result, no doubt, we also see "a fairly strong contingent of social scientists studying sport in the UK", he says.

Carter's work proves just how illuminating it can be when sport's pleasures - and its inevitable links with politics and real life - are taken as seriously as they deserve to be.

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