PITCHING AROUND FIDELA Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports
By S.L. Price
Ecco Press 288pp $24
FULL COUNTInside Cuban Baseball
By Milton H. Jamail
Southern Illinois Univ. 182pp $24.95
Last year, I snagged an unusually exotic assignment--even for a journalist who often gets such juicy stints as covering Major League Baseball owners' meetings in places like Kansas City, Mo. I spent three days in Havana, chronicling the visit of the Baltimore Orioles and trailing Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos. I returned with stories of friendly people, crushing poverty, and athletics. You cannot visit Cuba without being surrounded by sport and struck by the country's devotion to it.
I decided that the perfect souvenir of my visit would be a baseball cap. Not just any cap, but the team cap of the Industriales, the favorites to win it all year after year--Fidel's New York Yankees, as it were. But where to buy one? There certainly are no Wal-Marts or even state-run baseball-memorabilia stores in Castro's Cuba. As I thought about my wish, I recalled seeing not one Cuban wearing a hat or T-shirt of any local team. But perhaps I was looking in the wrong store windows. I met a teenage ballplayer on a dusty sandlot one afternoon and put my question to him: Where can I get an Industriales hat? He looked at me blankly. "The Industriales players have them," he said. "Ask one." I can't recall ever feeling so dumb.
There's another story. On my second day, I was in a taxi back to my hotel after an excursion to Havana's old city. The driver and I struck up a conversation, and, upon learning I was in Havana to cover a baseball game, he asked in a conspiratorial whisper: "Do you have a...Sports Illustrated?" I dashed up to my hotel room and returned with that week's magazine, which I gladly presented to him. I wondered if I would have been doing him a greater favor had I come back with diamonds.
I had run headlong into the two seemingly incongruous yet dominant themes of Cuban sports: the alluring purity of the games themselves, with no trace of the logo-marketing and beanie-baby-giveaways of the world beyond; and a "Big Brother is watching you" context, in which the regime seeks to control all information. Castro's tentacles reach everywhere in Cuban sports, influencing matters as petty as whether batting statistics are published in the government-run newspaper. This is a world foreign to most American sports fans, whose only knowledge of Cuban athletes is what they see at the Summer Olympics and on the mound at Yankee Stadium when Orlando "El Duque" Hernndez is kicking high.
Two notable books go deeper in telling the story of Cuban sports, including what compels many of the country's best athletes to flee and why others never will. Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports by S.L. Price, a Sports Illustrated senior writer, and Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball by University of Texas lecturer and baseball journalist Milton H. Jamail, are not the first to look into Castro's sports machine. Last year's The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball by Yale University professor Roberto Gonzalez Echevarra touched some of the same bases.
But unlike that weighty tome, these books are part travelogue, part social commentary, and, in Price's case, part journey to the private places where Cuba's athletes strive and struggle under Castro's yoke. Of the two new books, Price's takes the wider view, poking its nose into the politics and culture of Cuba every few pages. Price also has an easy, lyrical style that elevates his work beyond the usual sports fare. Jamail employs a more nuts-and-bolts approach, and, for the student of baseball, his book is a welcome resource.
Prior to this volume, Price has written extensively about Cuba and its athletes for Sports Illustrated. He knows the Byzantine rules imposed by the Cuban government on journalists visiting the island, and he evades them all: applying for a journalist's ID card and having one's movements and interviews monitored by government sports officials. Price roams the island eating salty ham sandwiches and riding in old jalopies as he searches for the great athletes of Cuba and their stories.
In Pitching Around Fidel, Price explains how sports came to be a symbol for the Castro dictatorship, and how the regime continues to emphasize Cuban athletes' achievements in global competitions as a way of underscoring the vitality of a revolution now in its fifth decade. When Cuba's 10-year winning streak in international baseball competition ended in 1997, jobs were lost and careers ended in disgrace, Price reports. And he offers insight into the agonizing quandary officials face when picking athletes for international competition: They must choose those who will bring home the best results. Yet they fear that, once out of the country, these stars may never return.
Price's first-person narrative hits its stride when he tells about his odd, occasionally surreal encounters with the elite of Cuba's athletic world. He meets Alberto Juantorena, a double gold medalist in the 1976 Summer Olympics and now a high-ranking official at the Cuban Olympic Committee, and gets an earful about the shameful defections of El Duque and others. "Only people without vision run after money," says Juantorena. "They believe they can go to the U.S. to become millionaires, but inside they are empty. They are merchandise. We prefer to stay and fight and support our system. We prefer to die here."
Price gets a different perspective in the tumbledown apartment of Hilda Maria Fiallo, the ex-wife of New York Mets shortstop Rey Ordonez. When Ordonez defected in 1993, he left her behind along with their son, Little Rey. Fiallo has spoken before to American journalists, but Price captures her anguish and isolation. Of her son, she cries: "He knows his father is far away. He always asks: `Why doesn't my father call me?' It's incredible that Rey is such a great baseball player and such a bad father. No. He's not even a bad father. He's no father."
Price goes on to interview such top Cuban stars as the country's greatest women's track champ, Ana Fidelia Quirot, and aging baseball pitcher Lazaro Valle. The journalist's greatest coup is wangling an invitation to boxer Teofilo Stevenson's 46th birthday party. The result is one of the most intensely personal portraits of the enigmatic Stevenson I have ever read--down to Price's wry observations of the ex-pugilist's preparing fish stew for guests, his cigarette at one point tumbling into the boiling pot.
In contrast, Jamail's book is all baseball and all about the remarkable passion the game arouses in Cuba. Since 1979, Jamail has made numerous trips to the island, and it would appear that he is accepted if not embraced by its baseball authorities. He refers to broadcasts he has made on Cuban radio talk shows and describes what seem to be good relations with government sports officials.
The ties do not prevent Jamail from offering a complete and, at times, devastating picture of the life of a Cuban baseball player. He explains that, in the broken Cuban economy, no citizens can rely on monthly wages. Even neurosurgeons must take second jobs--driving taxis or waiting tables--to rake in some tourist dollars. Baseball players are resigned to living meagerly on their $30-a-month salaries. Jamail quotes a fan in Havana who explains: "A doctor can get another doctor to cover his shift while he goes to his job as a waiter. But a ballplayer can't say, `Hey, would you play first base while I go do something else to earn dollars?"'
Neither Jamail nor Price nabs the prize that would have made his book complete: an interview with Castro. In fact, there is no suggestion that either even tried to get one. But both tackle the oft-asked, never-settled questions of El Comandante's own baseball talents and whether, as some have speculated, they were of major-league caliber.
Through the years, it has been reported that, if it weren't for his preoccupation with the revolution, Castro might have ended up as a pitcher for the Washington Senators. Jamail thinks that's unlikely, while Price regards it as almost comical. "Considering the play it has received in the United States, the most curious aspect of Castro's supposed brush with the big leagues is that no one in Cuba mentions it," he writes.
Of course, it is in the nature of this closed, suffocating society that there will always be secrets, even about sports. But in these books, Jamail and Price have unlocked a few.