Saul Landau reviews The Duke of Havana
- The Washington Post
Reviewed by Saul Landau
Sunday, April 1, 2001; Page BW09
THE DUKE OF HAVANA
Baseball, Cuba, and the Search For the American Dream
By Steve Fainaru and Ray Sanchez Villard. 338 pp. $24.95
Over four decades U.S. presidents have sponsored an invasion
of Cuba by armed exiles, tried to assassinate Fidel Castro and
tried to crush him and his revolution with assorted terrorist
actions. The United States has sought to destabilize Cuba's
economy with an embargo and travel ban and, if you believe
Castro, even resorted to biological and chemical warfare
against Cuba's plant and animal life as well.
Since the above tactics all failed, Castro might well assume
his proper place in the Guinness Book as world record holder
for disobedience. George W. Bush, the 10th U.S. president
Castro whom has observed taking office, made the same old vow
to oppose the world's last living communist leader. Fidel, now
75 and perhaps feeling a bit confident, called Bush stupid.
Indeed, the Castro-led revolution even survived the
post-Soviet period, whose disasters were compounded forCuba by the tightening of the U.S. embargo. Despite thehorrific hit to his nation's economy, Castro continued toboast of his revolution's achievements in health, education,art, culture, science and especially sports.
Cuba's national baseball team -- the best in a nation of 11
million -- has regularly bested our best players in the Pan Am
games and other international competition. But with the
downward economic spiral of the post-Soviet era, everything in
Cuba began to change.
How those changes affected Cuba's vaunted national team isthe subject of The Duke of Havana, by Steve Fainaru and Ray
Sánchez. They report that none of the immensely talented
players on the national baseball team defected in the first
three decades of the revolution. "Then, on July 4, 1991, Rene
Arocha missed his plane."
A right hander with a failing marriage and "a long list of
grievances against the government," Arocha became the first
baseball defector. Enter Joe Cubas, a surly exile scoundrel.
This aspiring baseball agent found the means to inflict real
pain on Castro. He bribed his best players -- specimens Fidel
had converted into veritable icons of the new culture in a
nation whose people love baseball more than any otheractivity except sex -- into defecting.
At the center of the book is the saga of pitcher Orlando "El
Duque" Hernandez, who defected with the aid of Cubas in 1996.
The authors understand that the story "perfectly captured the
utter absurdity of the never-ending hostilities between the
U.S. government and Fidel Castro.
Perhaps only enemy nations who share baseball as a national
pastime could turn a stylish right-handed pitcher into a
symbol of the best and worst of two societies." The Duke of
Havana, a semi-adventure story of a Cold War money game,
centers on a smarmy group of characters who want to get rich
by luring some of Cuba's finest hurlers to the United States.
Authors Fainaru, a Washington Post reporter, and Sanchez,a columnist at Newsday, employ the poppy, peppy prose of
sports-page journalism. The writers know their baseball and
offer too brief but still wonderful tales about old Cuban
players like Dolf Luque.
They are at their sports-reporter best when describing the
hero pitching in crucial playoff and series games.But they
also get tangled up in the web of events that surrounds El
Duque's escape from Cuba and his subsequent emergenceas a star Yankee pitcher. In the chapters in which they become
covert messengers between agents and players, they lose the
reportorial panache that spices the prose of the early and
The Duke of Havana could have become a serious critique of
contemporary baseball by comparing the game as played in
contemporary Cuba with how it's played in the U.S. major
leagues. Instead it turns into a less-than-thrilling escape
A more interesting book might revolve around the greatplayers who told Joe Cubas and his ilk where to shovetheir million-dollar inducements. Slugger Omar Linares, for
instance, resisted the material temptations and remained in
Cuba, earning a pittance and playing before the provincial
The Yankees offered him $1.5 million to sign. "Every year the
teams offer me more money," Linares says. "Money doesn't
interest me." In his view, defection "would be an act of
treason." A comparison of those players who stayed and those
who left might have made a more interesting story in the genre
of sports anthropology.
The authors might have joined the Cuban players on their
rusty, smoke-leaking bus and in their roach-filled locker
room, as Tom Miller did in his Trading With the Enemy: A
Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba, which remains the best
treatment of the social side of Cuban baseball. Miller rode on
the bus with the players and hung out with them in the dingy
Fainaru and Sanchez don't ground the book morally or
historically, although they mention important events in the
40-year-long U.S.-Cuban antipathy. They note how the Cold War
oozed its way into baseball, but then they drift into such
silliness as "Livan Hernandez [El Duque's brother and the
defector who helped the Florida Marlins win the 1997 World
Series] and the late Che Guevara were battling it out for the
hearts and minds of the Cuban people; and, truth be told, Che
was taking a beating."El Duque's big adventure amounts to a
personal triumph for the pitcher whom Fidel had banished from
baseball as punishment for dubious loyalty, and an even
greater victory for the seedy agents who make fortunes by
inducing poor black Cuban pitchers -- such as Livan and
Orlando Hernandez, who throw 90-mile-an-hour fastballs and
wicked curves over a sliver of the plate -- to defect.
The players become instant millionaires and add a few more
shekels to the already large and undeserved mound of loot
possessed by multimillionaire owners such as George
Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees.
The book makes Steinbrenner's multimillion-dollar investment
in El Duque Hernandez seem like legitimate -- ergo moral? --
business. Indeed, the authors conclude, the search for Cuban
ball players was "simply white-hot demand chasing scarce,
highly skilled labor." Alas, poor baseball.
•Saul Landau is the director of Digital Media and
International Outreach Programs for the College of Letters,
Arts and Social Sciences, California State Polytechnic
© 2001 The Washington Post Company