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Saul Landau reviews The Duke of Havana

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  • Walter Lippmann
    The Washington Post Striking Out Reviewed by Saul Landau Sunday, April 1, 2001; Page BW09 THE DUKE OF HAVANA Baseball, Cuba, and the Search For the American
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 1, 2001
      The Washington Post

      Striking Out

      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 for
      Cuba by the tightening of the U.S. embargo. Despite the
      horrific hit to his nation's economy, Castro continued to
      boast 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 is
      the 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 other
      activity 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 emergence
      as 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
      later chapters.

      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
      story.

      A more interesting book might revolve around the great
      players who told Joe Cubas and his ilk where to shove
      their million-dollar inducements. Slugger Omar Linares, for
      instance, resisted the material temptations and remained in
      Cuba, earning a pittance and playing before the provincial
      crowds.

      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
      locker rooms.

      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
      University, Pomona.

      © 2001 The Washington Post Company

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