National Pastime Crosses Frontiers

| 26 May 2015 | 11:46

José Aguilera and Steve Malley, friends from their respective affiliations with the West Side Little League, are playing it forward.

Earlier this year, Malley, whose son played in the league until the family moved to Bronxville three years, was looking “for something to do, and to give back.” With Bronxville generally without need, he was unsure of what to take up.

But when President Obama announced in December that the United States would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, “a light went off,” said Malley, 62, a former editor with ESPN.

The connections were as evident as an Orlando Hernández leg kick. Malley would collect baseball gear and, through the proper channels, get it to residents of the Caribbean island nation, whose passion for baseball is matched only by that in this country. There would be a need, and certainly a want. With that Beisbol Across Cuba had legs.

Malley reached out to Aguilera — the West Side Little League’s vice president and de facto equipment manager — asking if he could spare some gear.

Sure, Aguilera responded, he had a few helmets and bats. A few days later, Aguilera and Malley met at the league’s equipment locker uptown.

“It took me two truckloads to move it all,” Malley said. “There were maybe 15 team bags in that locker.”

Aguilera, 53, said the gear — gloves, bats, catchers’ kits, bases and uniforms — was outdated. “It was nice to part with the old and make way for new,” he said.

But there was another, more elusive reason for his generosity. Aguilera, who owns and runs a food shop on West 72nd Street, near West End Avenue, has lived his entire life on the Upper West Side. But, as he tells it, he was “manufactured there” — meaning Cuba.

“My father escaped from Cuba around July of ’61,” said Aguilera, who was born in February 1962.

His dad worked in management for Caterpillar and company executives arranged for him to leave for the United States for a kidney operation, which was as much pretext as a necessity. He and they knew he would likely not return to now-communist Cuba. Aguilera’s mother, a professor of art, and his sister, then 13, and brother, 9, flew out in December of that year.

“As an adult I did the math,” said Aguilera, who along with his wife raised three sons on the Upper West Side. “I had to have been a passion baby.”

The Aguileras had lived comfortably in Cuba. But Castro’s revolution stripped them of nearly everything, including land, and the family initially had a difficult time in this country.

With help from The Church of the Blessed Sacrament on West 71st, the Aguileras settled first with a neighborhood family and then found an apartment at the Sherman Square Hotel nearby. But the Upper West Side of the early 1960s barely resembled what it looks like today. Aguilera said that among his earliest memories were the “constant” fires.

The Aguileras eventually secured their footing, his mother becoming a public school teacher uptown and his father working in human resources.

But Cuba and the family’s personal legacy remained, and remains, a hard topic to parse. Aguilera’s older sister has sworn never to set foot in her native country so long as the Castros are in power. Aguilera is more conciliatory, and curious.

“What happened, happened,” said Aguilera, who has never visited Cuba. “It was terrible what happened to our family, but that was five decades ago. ... I want to see my heritage and I want to share that with my children.”

And baseball, he said, is one antidote to the antipathy, antagonism and even hostility. For Aguilera, the game is also a means to a precious end.

“I was hoping to get to Cuba through West Side Little League,” he said.

He might yet do so.

Malley said he, his wife and his 14-year-old son, will travel to Cuba this summer as part of a delegation from Christ Church in Bronxville, which, as a religious institution, is exempt from most of the still extant blockade’s restrictions. They’ll bring as much of 15 equipment bags of West Side baseball gear as they can carry. Malley characterizes the trip as “a fact-finding mission.”

“We want to continue this going forward,” he said. Eventually, he said, he hopes to establish a lasting relationship with the baseball community in the country.

“We have a completely open book,” he said. “As barriers come down, perhaps we can take a team down or have a team come up.”

Malley won’t have to look far for a collaborator.

“My dream is to take a team out there and play,” Aguilera said. “I’m all for going. I’m all for going.”