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In Cuba, information comes from conversation

HAVANA -- If a casual fan wanted to find out José Dariel Abreu's batting average with the Chicago White Sox in 2015 or how many home runs he hit during a particular stretch of games, a few clicks on a computer or a smart phone would suffice to gather the most extensive stats on the Cuban slugger.

But in Cuba, looking for the same details and information about Abreu's performance would take days, even weeks.

This is where the "Peña Deportiva" comes to the rescue.

A "Peña" is a group of fans that gathers to discuss a particular sports topic, and in Cuba, it has been the preferred way to spread Major League Baseball information since the beginning of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, when baseball became a target of anti-American sentiment.

And while the Esquina Caliente (Hot Corner) at the Parque Central is one of the most popular "Peñas" and a destination for MLB players in their recent visits to the island nation, a nondescript corner of John Lennon Park a couple of miles away has much less fanfare but not less knowledge.

It all started in 1996, when Liván Hernández signed with the then-Florida Marlins. Through their antennas, Cubans were able to get the open TV feeds from only 90 miles away, and they got to watch their local hero make it all the way to the Fall Classic.

Those who couldn't watch the games live would get VHS recordings and share them as precious commodities. Then they would get together at John Lennon Park every Friday afternoon to discuss the latest prowess of their Cuban hero.

The "Peña MLB" is a motley crew of 20 to 30 characters, a combination of government workers, taxi drivers, independent businessmen, handymen, janitors, construction workers and college students, ranging in age from their early 20s to their late 70s, all united around just one thing: their love of baseball.

They all show up in their favorite team gear, most of which they have received from family members and friends who have somehow managed to travel to the United States. Many come carrying detailed printouts of stats on not only Cubans but all the top players in MLB, including extended scorebooks.

Many of these card-carrying members have to ride a bus two to three hours to Havana and then stay late after a long work day to simply learn the latest on Yasiel Puig or on Aroldis Chapman's new team or on Yoenis Céspedes' contract with the Mets.

They engage (frequently) in heated discussions, which always end with an amicable "agree to disagree" truce that has the lifespan of exactly a week. The following Friday, from 5 p.m. until sunset, new battles emerge and a new victor may or may not be crowned.

And even though you will see a few Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers and even Arizona Diamondbacks hats, the majority among those gathered wear New York Yankees hats, remembering when the Bronx Bombers were the kings of MLB.

Two decades after its formation, the "Peña MLB" has grown in size. NBA and NFL topics may come and go, but "béisbol" will always be the first love of its members. And while only a lucky few members were able to secure a government-issued ticket for Tuesday's historic exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team at the Estadio Latinoamericano just a few miles away, their passion for baseball has not dwindled.

Fans of Major League Baseball in Cuba know better. Although widespread live broadcasts from the world's top soccer leagues have diminished baseball's popularity, the fans have learned to be resourceful and patient.

The four renovated lighting towers at the Estadio Latinoamericano now have massive posters picturing Cuban baseball legends that read: "Libres, Firmes, Dignos, Unidos" (Free, Steadfast, Dignified, United).

Judging by the "Peña MLB," yes, they are.