For Marino Martínez,it began 44 years ago on the streets of Guira de Melena, a small city ringed by tobacco fields south of Havana. Martínez was eight years old, playing stickball with friends, their shouts echoing off the faded buildings, when a passerby took notice of the boy's prodigious swing. The man was no stranger. He was Lorenzo Cabrera, the physically intimidating star of the Marianao Tigers baseball team and a onetime U.S. Negro League player known across Cuba as "Chiquitin," or "Little One."
Cabrera befriended Martínez and trained him in the fine sciences of batting and fielding. With Cabrera's guidance, Martínez won a spot as shortstop on the national junior team at age sixteen. The year was 1960. Because Martínez's parents had not joined any Communist party organizations, the government prohibited the young man from traveling abroad.
Now age 52, Martínez is a veteran sports writer at Diario Las Américas in Miami. On a recent afternoon, between sips of pea soup at Versailles on Calle Ocho, Martínez speaks in rapid-fire Spanish about his dream of opening a Cuban Sports Hall of Fame in Little Havana. "I like history, and Cuba has a beautiful sports history," he says.
Dressed in a navy blue T-shirt and khakis, the balding Martínez sports a shadow of stubble on his chin. His wiry eyebrows spill over the thin-rimmed glasses he removes frequently to emphasize a point. After eight years of dreaming, Martínez believes he is months away from realizing the hall of fame. The city has offered to donate a 1500-square-foot space, Martínez says, and hundreds of supporters have promised donations of money and memorabilia. Since 2003, Martínez has held several induction ceremonies, the most recent, in January, attracting almost 700 spectators, according to El Nuevo Herald. "There are thousands of people who want to be [part of this]," Martínez says.
Martínez rattles off dates and stats about his idols boxers with nicknames like "Kid Chocolate" and baseball players with monikers like "Cookie." There's Cuba's first Olympic champion, Ramón Fonst, who took gold in fencing in 1900. There's world-champion weightlifter Roberto Urrutia, famed female basketball player Martha Morejón, and national swimming champion Graciela Pujals. "It's important to recognize all these figures," Martínez says. "They are forgotten."