Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Play ball: British Columbia Teacher Helps Cuban Relive Glory

Canadian tries to get recognition for former major-league pitcher, 94, forgotten by the baseball establishment

Tuesday, May 3, 2005
Special to The Globe and Mail

Ernest (Kit) Krieger, a Vancouver teacher, speaks un poco espagnol. Conrado (Connie) Marrero, a Havana retiree, speaks a leetle inglese. The language they share is baseball.

They both were once pitchers, although Mr. Krieger's professional career was so short as to be a sporting oddity. Mr. Marrero enjoyed great longevity on the mound, as in life. The oldest-living member of the old Washington Senators baseball team turned 94 last week, an event uncelebrated in the city where he once bamboozled opposing batters.

Major-league baseball returned to the United States capital this spring after a long hiatus. A parade of former players has been cheered by grateful fans. Mr. Marrero has not been among them.

Retired baseball players are a close-knit group who play games for charity, sign autographs for profit, and retell old stories for the sheer joy of it. Mr. Marrero lives in isolation from his baseball comrades, a hero in Cuba who is all but forgotten in a nearby land where many once marvelled at his pitching mastery. "He lives outside the fraternity, totally cut off from the world in which he once lived," Mr. Krieger said.

For seven years, Mr. Krieger has tried without success to integrate Mr. Marrero into the baseball community. His initiatives have been thwarted by a baseball establishment unable or unwilling to circumvent the U.S. Treasury Department's sanctions on trade with Cuba.

The old pitcher lives in a Spartan room in his grandson's walk-up apartment in Havana's Cerro neighbourhood. The walls are bare, betraying no hint of the celebrated past of one of Cuba's best pitchers in history. He does not receive a baseball pension.

The apartment is a long fly ball from the Estadio Latinoamerica, where he once earned the admiration -- and animosity, depending on club allegiance -- of his countrymen. Beneath the grandstand, his image has been painted on a wall, part of a mural that includes an image of Fidel Castro swinging a bat while dressed in green fatigues.

The Cuban leader is often wrongly described as having been scouted by the major leagues. He was more weekend warrior than serious prospect. After the revolution, he did pitch in exhibition games for a team called Los Barbudos (the Bearded Ones).

Mr. Castro shows little interest in the history of Cuban baseball before 1959, an era of low-paying contracts he dismisses as "slave baseball." So, it is left to Mr. Krieger and a handful of die-hard baseball fans to remind the world of the achievements of Mr. Marrero.

Conrado Eugenio Marrero Ramos was born to a poor sugarcane farmer in Sagua La Grande on April 25, 1911. His country roots earned him the nickname El Guajiro -- the Hillbilly. As an amateur, he was Cuba's greatest pitcher, a national hero in the 1940s known for a vast repertoire of pitches.

Listed wishfully as 5-foot-7, a measurement certainly taken while wearing spikes, he was a pudgy 158-pounder, looking little like an athlete, not the less for the ubiquitous presence of a fat cigar. However, he was blessed with a farmer's large hands, with long fingers the better to grip a baseball.

Mr. Marrero did not turn professional until age 35, then became a major-league rookie with Washington in 1950 at age 38. He celebrated his 39th birthday four days after his debut. He was called the "slow-ball senor," while his pitching motion was said to resemble "an orangutan heaving a 16-pound shot."

"Marrero's legs are so short that to batters he sometimes appears to be buried up to his waist on the mound," Life Magazine told readers in 1951. "He is so old that he creaks like an un-oiled windmill if he has to work more than once a week. He can throw a baseball just hard enough to reach the catcher. "Hitters who have been around the league a while have a contemptuous word for what he throws -- junk."

Mr. Marrero had the enviable ability to make batters look foolish. The great Ted Williams once said: "He throws you everything but the ball." The Cuban recorded 39 wins and 40 losses in five seasons with Washington, throwing at an age better suited to pitching horseshoes than baseballs.

He retired in 1954, returning to his homeland, where Mr. Krieger discovered him some 44 years later. The teacher found the player's name in the telephone directory. Mr. Marrero regaled the visitor with tales of meeting Connie Mack, of striking out Joe DiMaggio, of giving up a home run to Mr. Williams. "He is a shrewd, sharp, intelligent man," Mr. Krieger said. "If he lived anywhere else, he would be feted for his storytelling."

One baseball acquaintance the unlikely friends shared was Mickey Vernon, a team mate of Mr. Marrero's at Washington and the man who gave Mr. Krieger his big break in baseball.

In 1968, Mr. Krieger was a clubhouse attendant for Vancouver's minor-league team. The Mounties suffered from poor attendance. Mr. Krieger pitched a proposal to management -- let him pitch and he would fill the stands with his fellow university students.

Mounties manager Mickey Vernon agreed, and Mr. Krieger took to the mound to face the Hawaii Islanders on the final day of the season. The stands were empty as usual, but the clubhouse attendant fared better than feared. He surrendered just one run in three innings of work before being pulled from the game.

For the past four years, Mr. Krieger has included a visit with Mr. Marrero as part of his annual Cuba-ball Tours. The old player signs Topps cards and Senators caps in exchange for a few U.S. dollars. He has been presented with letters solicited by Mr. Krieger from Washington team mates, including third baseman Ed Yost, who wrote: "I caught many pop-ups that the batters hit from that great high slider of yours." Pitcher Sid Hudson sent $50.

Last year, Monte Irvin, a former Negro League player and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, made a pilgrimage to visit Mr. Marrero. The two had played together on Havana's legendary Almendares team in the late 1940s.

An embrace renewed a friendship in limbo for 55 years.

Connie Marrero

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