Michael Kagan never played baseball in high school or college, instead sticking with soccer and rugby.
As a California teacher, then a Kentucky farmer, he played a little softball before moving to the Northwest, getting married and earning his real estate broker’s license.
The year he turned 52, the University Place man started playing in the Puget Sound Senior Baseball League and, because he could still run, he became a center fielder.
Today he is 64 and still fields that position.
Making up for lost years that first season, Kagan played for two teams, May through August, and wound up in 54 games.
“When the season ends, I hit the gym and do a lot of cardio. At my age, it’s tough staying in shape, but if you stop working, you have to get back in shape.”
Four years ago, the league forwarded a memo to everyone in the 55-and-older circuit. A California man was planning a trip to Cuba and was trying to field a team of seniors to play there.
“I didn’t have to be asked twice,” Kagan said.
Since then, he’s gone to Cuba three times, and next month he will visit again. Purely by chance, the team plays games in Cienfuegos, which happens to be one of Tacoma’s sister cities.
“It’s a beautiful city, about 31/2 hours from Havana,” he said. “We play in a stadium that holds 20,000, the home of the Elephantes. Admission to those games is 4 cents, and you get nine innings of conga music, too.”
Mindful of the poverty in Cuba, Kagan has collected about 100 pounds of used baseball equipment each year and hauled it overseas. Each trip cost him about $3,000, and he gives away much of what he takes – and trades some for Cuban hats and jerseys.
“Those go into an auction here every year that raises money for Cienfuegos,” Kagan said. “We’ve helped build an aqueduct, a senior center, helped repair hurricane damage.”
After flying from Seattle to Florida and meeting his teammates, all of whom have federal permits to travel to the communist country, Kagan continues on to Cuba.
“On the flight from Florida, baggage cost is $1 a pound. There are people flying air conditioners to Cuba, taking washing machines,” he said.
Once on the ground and in uniform, Kagan said, players are besieged by men looking for one thing.
“Everyone in Cuba asks for a baseball for their son. And everyone has a son – even 90-year-old men,” he said. “I let them begin the conversations that go beyond baseball. You never know who’s listening, and I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.
“They love talking baseball. They’re blown away by our ability to travel, by our equipment.”
When the games begin, the Cubans take it seriously. The American team of about 14 players take on what amounts to an All-Star Cuban squad.
Kagan said the Americans typically hold their own.
“We were 3-3 two years, 2-4 the other,” he said. “We played the Cuban Women’s National Baseball team and went 1-1 against them.”
Kagan has had fun on and off the field.
“I’ve made friends with Cuban players over the years, and we look forward to seeing each other every visit,” he said. “It’s hard staying in touch. There’s not much computer access for most folks.”
With his white hair and long white beard, Kagan has been known to dress in a Cuban military uniform – complete with a cigar in his mouth. He could pass at a distance for Fidel Castro.
He’s visited museums, eaten in Cuban family restaurants and been delighted by the children.
“When you give them baseballs and a bat, they all share it,” Kagan said. “Here, one kid would probably take the bat, another might take a ball or two. There, it’s a socialist country – they share everything they get.”
Kagan still loves playing the game, and loves talking about the game. He asked if his numbers would be fact-checked, and was told that probably would be impossible. That pleased him.
“In that case, say I hit .600,” he said, and laughed.
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638