HAVANA -- Clayton Kershaw needed to play catch, because it's already December and this is what he does at least four times a week this time of year. It didn't matter that Spring Training won't start for another two months, or that he was on a goodwill tour through Cuba, or even that he was confined to the Hotel Nacional with nightfall approaching.
He plucked Jose Cruz, the former outfielder who now works for the Major League Baseball Players Association, and together they went out back, to the patio section of the resort and in plain sight of all its occupants. With the sun setting behind him, and a swelling mob surrounding him, Kershaw lightly went through his distinctive delivery and fired fastballs into Cruz's borrowed glove.
Cruz could hear people weeping.
"It was a bit surreal," Cruz said. "It was beautiful."
To the onlookers, this was more than a game of catch. This was a real-life, American professional baseball player in Cuba, the island that for so long had been sheltered from talents like these. This was Clayton Kershaw, the game's premier pitcher, ironing out his craft at this nation's most iconic hotel. This was the kind of sight those in attendance never thought they'd experience.
To a Cuban populace beginning to believe real change may be on the horizon, this was everything.
"It kind of put it in perspective, how important baseball is here," Kershaw said. "Just the passion that the Cuban people have for baseball, and then maybe the significance of this trip, too."
"I think it's a testament to him, and to his wife, and to a lot of the work that they do internationally," MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said. "His willingness to be involved, to be a part of a growing-the-game-and-making-a-difference conversation, is unrivaled."
Kershaw and his wife, Ellen, have immersed themselves in charitable work throughout Africa, building an orphanage in Zambia and partnering with CURE International, which provides medical care to children suffering from orthopedic and neurological conditions. That organization pushed Kershaw to visit the Dominican Republic last year, setting a goal to fund 100 surgeries at a local hospital.
And that trip whet Kershaw's appetite for Latin America, nudging him here, to Cuba, where his sport reigns supreme.
"They keep saying, 'Baseball's the way of life,' but you don't really know what that means," Kershaw said. "Then you come here and you kind of understand. It's so important, and it's so new, too, this whole trip and what the people here can experience and what we as players can do. It's just such new territory for us. I think the excitement of being here is infectious."
Kershaw's Wednesday began by teaching 150 kids about the fine art of pitching. At the historic Estadio Latinoamericano, home to the Industriales, Kershaw rotated through five stations of children ages 7 to 12 and instructed them to lift their pitching leg up, hold still for a couple of seconds and drive with their back leg toward an imaginary home plate, just like him.
"Bueno!" Kershaw told the group after a successful second try.
Then, with a translator by his side, he told the children how they would pitch to one another, their partners squatting for five pitches and then alternating until it was time to move on to the next station. They nodded in approval.
"Vamos!" he said, jogging down the right-field line to take his spot for his miniature throwing partner.
"That's why I love to come," Kershaw said. "The kids are what drive me to want to do this stuff, just because I want them to have an opportunity to play baseball. I want them to have any opportunity they want. That's tough to do. But just for one day, at least, they can come, smile and have fun. If I can make a kid smile playing baseball, that's pretty awesome. Especially here."
After the clinic, Kershaw went through his routine throwing session, this time with one of the Industriales players. He boarded the bus -- after navigating through a mob of selfie-seeking fans -- and joined the rest of the group for lunch at the famous El Floridita. On his way out, the 27-year-old left-hander delighted the crowd by going behind the bar to help make a daiquiri.
Three hours later, he took a ride to a local church, San Juan De Letran, on one of those vintage cars he has become so enamored with. There, about 100 children gathered to thank MLB, the MLBPA and its players for a $200,000 grant to benefit their organization, Caritas Cubana. The emcee introduced all of the players, except one.
"I'm sorry," he said, turning to Kershaw. "What's your name?"
The event eventually broke out in song, the children performing. A small boy vocalized a popular salsa song, "El Pregonero," and all eight of the players jumped on stage for impromptu dancing. Kershaw was there, smiling, laughing and swaying his hips in whatever motion felt natural.
He tried his best.
"It's amazing to see where baseball can take you," Kershaw said. "An opportunity like this doesn't come along very often. Just to be a part of this trip and to kind of be the outsider, just to see how the different players interact and just how important it is for them to come back, it puts a lot of it in perspective. Baseball is just a game, obviously, but it means a lot to a lot of different people."