NEWTON — A Cuban-born woman whose prominent family fled their island nation in fear in 1959 opened her home Monday night to a group of older softball players visiting from Cuba for a bittersweet dinner under the stars.
“Just hearing their voices — the Cuban accent — brings tears to my eyes. It makes me young again,” said Alina Bracciale, who was 4 when Fidel Castro toppled the government of Fulgencio Batista and sent her father, a government lawyer, into hiding.
Paintings and black-and-white photographs of Cuba fill Bracciale’s home in Newton. She points out one photograph of a teddy bear given to her by Batista himself.
Bracciale, 58, has vague memories of the night her father kissed her mother goodbye in the doorway and disappeared. Five months later, she, her mother, and her younger brother took the ferry from Havana to Palm Beach, Fla., under the guise of a weekend trip, never to return to Cuba.
A lifetime later, Cuba paid a visit to Bracciale.
“You have a lovely home,” said Ernesto Morilla, one of seven former players from Cuba’s top amateur baseball league, the National Series, who are part of the group in town for the Friendship Games, a series of exhibition games against local players from the Eastern Massachusetts Senior Softball League and the Bay State Senior Softball Association.
Morilla, a 62-year-old shortstop, is the son of the late Chico Morilla, a hotshot pitcher for the Miami Beach Flamingos in the 1950s before the revolution. He has been part of the Cuban lineup since the first installment of the Friendship Games in Havana in 2009.
“It is like we are all family. We’ve known each other five years now. It’s all about baseball. We are so much alike. We never talk politics — it doesn’t matter,” Morilla said. “This is beautiful.”
It is only the second time the Cuban players have been allowed to leave the island for the softball games, and the first time their trip was officially sanctioned by the Cuban Ministry of Sports, said organizer Kathy Rice, who coordinated travel and visas for the 19 visitors. She said the logistics were a bit easier this year, since Cuba no longer requires citizens to seek permission to travel, as long as they have a passport. However, the lack of telephones and e-mail for the players complicated the planning.
“One player’s visa didn’t come through until Tuesday and they were flying on Thursday,” said Rice, who did not attend the dinner in Newton.
The evening unfolded like a typical backyard family get-together. There were group photos on the patio, chairs arrayed around a table set with home-cooked dishes of arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), maduros (fried plantains), croquettes, flan, and fruit. Wine and soda had its own table in the corner, and a red and white cooler held the beer nearby. The guests chatted (in English and Spanish), joked, and broke into spontaneous song toward the end of the night.
At one point, Reinaldo Linares — MVP of the Cuban National Series in 1967 — lighted a cigar. He gave one to Bracciale, raising some eyebrows.
“You like cigars?” asked Armando Aguilar, who wore his world championship ring from the International Softball Federation.
“I love cigars,” Bracciale replied, although she put the gift away for later.
“Eres Cubana,” Aguilar said with a smile. “You are Cuban.”
Aguilar, the former coach of the powerhouse Russian women’s national softball team, did not fly with the rest of the players from Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. Instead, he arrived in the United States from Milan, where he coaches the Italian women’s team. The lone world traveler of the group talked to Bracciale about his love of Europe and the beauty of Vienna.
Third baseman Elias Coury, a large and animated man in matching blue shorts and T-shirt from the Grapefruit League in Florida, recounted his experience at a bar in Angola, where the then-soldier found himself unexpectedly dancing the night away to music from across Latin America.
The Cubans were unwinding after an afternoon double-header against their host teams. The visitors won both games Monday, 17-9 and 19-5, but the competition was closer than it appeared, according to Gary Buxton, who has four of the players staying at his Holliston home.
“The first game was tied 9-9 until their last up at bat. Then they scored a bunch of runs,” said Buxton, who was quick to point out the Americans won both games in Sunday’s opening double-header on Boston Common.
Center fielder Jesus “Chuchi” Colome, 70, and Alfredo Mora, 63, cracked jokes at each other’s expense nonstop. During Monday’s double-header, they bet a dozen bottles of beer over who would get the most hits. Colome won with seven.
“He better pay up, he lost!” Colome said.
The evening of camaraderie was not without some controversy, at least for Bracciale. While she was preparing her late mother’s recipe for arroz con pollo on Sunday, her 81-year-old father called repeatedly from South Carolina to harangue her for hosting players from the communist island.
“I’ve taken more grief from my family over this gathering,” Bracciale said. “I didn’t do this to make any statement. It was nothing political. I just wanted to give these guys enough food to eat for one night. I know when they go home, most of them do not have enough to eat. I just wanted to sit down with them and share what I have. It’s what we Cubans do. We share.
“I tell my daughter this all the time — it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness,” Bracciale said. “That’s what I did tonight. I lit one candle.”Jose Martinez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.