Beisbol Story


Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream

By Steve Fainaru and Ray Sánchez

Villard -- 338pp -- $24.95

El Duque, mired in an inexplicable slump, has been having a miserable spring. But even if the Yankees pitcher Orlando Hernández never strikes out another batter, he has earned himself a place in the annals of baseball and in the hearts of fans. It's not just his endearing style--hat pulled down to his ears, stirrup socks high up over the calves. And it's not just the windup that looks like some crazy yoga pose until it fluidly delivers one of the canny pitches in his arsenal. It's his story.

Hernández, 35, is a Cuban original who for a decade was one of the most famous beisbol players on the island--a hero of the revolution until his overnight transformation into a pariah. El Duque was hardly the first or last player to flee Cuba: The 1995 defection of his half-brother, Florida Marlin Liván Hernández--Most Valuable Player in the '97 World Series and toast of Miami's Little Havana--helped put Orlando in Castro's doghouse. But El Duque's Christmas, '97, escape on a fishing boat, his signing by the Yankees for $6.6 million, and his appearance in postseason play 10 months later riveted two nations.

In The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream, the wonderfully exhaustive reporting of authors Steve Fainaru of The Washington Post and Ray Sánchez of Newsday dispels many of the myths about Hernández and apocryphal details of his flight. But The Duke is not just another homage to a sports icon.

In fact, it is three books in one. First, The Duke is a compelling biography of Hernández and a family spread across Cuba by Orlando's philandering father, the original El Duque. This wizened ex-ballplayer tells the authors, tongue-in-rum-soaked cheek, that Fidel once suggested he be given women, an island, and a cache of booze so that he might produce pitchers for the future.

At the same time, The Duke is an investigative look at the pack of would-be sports agents who recognized a potential bonanza in Cuba. They include the conspiracy-obsessed Joe "The Fat Man" Cubas, a Florida building contractor who mortgages his life for a pot of gold that eventually falls into his lap; Cubas' cousin, Juan Ignacio Hernández, "a part-time truck driver and full-time schemer," who winds up weeping in a Cuban jail; and Tom Cronin, a Cape Cod real estate agent who joins Cubas and Ignacio in trying to lure members of the Cuban national team into defecting.

At first, the authors present Cubas & Co. as buffoons playing secret agent and plying players with pizza and beer when Team Cuba visits the U.S. But in time, their efforts seem more nefarious: Fainaru and Sánchez present a serious case that the Marlins made a payoff to get Liván Hernández.

Lastly, The Duke is a social commentary on Castro's Cuba, a place of such aching poverty that kids fashion baseballs out of cork studded with nails. Cuba's national pastime has a purity that America's has lost. It is a game played with the desperate passion of a people trying to momentarily forget their gloom and hardscrabble isolation.

By Ciro Scotti

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