Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports

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In a pastiche of observation, personal narrative, interviews, and investigative reporting, S. L. Price, a Senior Writer for Sports Illustrated, describes sports and athletes in today's Cuba. On his many journeys to the island, Price finds a country that celebrates sports like no other and a leader who uses athletics as both symbol and weapon in his country's dying revolution." "In interviews with Teofilo Stevenson, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, and Ana Quirot, S. L. Price unearths the truth about sports in Cuba ...
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Overview

In a pastiche of observation, personal narrative, interviews, and investigative reporting, S. L. Price, a Senior Writer for Sports Illustrated, describes sports and athletes in today's Cuba. On his many journeys to the island, Price finds a country that celebrates sports like no other and a leader who uses athletics as both symbol and weapon in his country's dying revolution." "In interviews with Teofilo Stevenson, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, and Ana Quirot, S. L. Price unearths the truth about sports in Cuba and explores the complex reasons that drive athletes of promise to flee their homeland. Beyond an examination of sports in the hothouse of revolution, Pitching Around Fidel presents a vibrant and realistic portrait of Cuba today, complete with sex-happy tourists, blackouts, Fidel's famous former lover, and Charles Hill, a black nationalist fugitive wanted in the United States for murder and hijacking.
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Editorial Reviews

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The Barnes & Noble Review
Cuba's prowess on the baseball diamond and in the boxing ring -- and its consistent Olympic bounty -- is an open secret. Murkier, though, is the role of sports in a closed society that some star athletes risk their lives to escape. In Pitching Around Fidel, acclaimed sportswriter S. L. Price powerfully documents the life of the Cuban athlete, forced by the state to choose between family and a shot at the American Dream.

There is a seductive purity to sport in Cuba. While salaries of major leaguers rage out of control in the United States, Cuban ballplayers are hardly paid at all. Havana's Industriales, once the team of Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, are cheered by raucous crowds. Price observes: "I look around at the faces. The eyes all have that unhealthy third-world sheen, watery and bloodshot and buttermilk yellow. But everybody seems so happy."

Even Cuba's decrepit venues evoke nostalgia. Built in 1991, Havana's Kid Chocolate Boxing Hall's "cramped, dingy, un-airconditioned confines lend it the tawdry patina of the fistic palaces once found in every major American city."

For every Rey Ordoñez or El Duque who escapes Cuba, there is a player of comparable skill who remains. Legendary infielder Omar Linares is Cuba's answer to Ozzie Smith; Lazare Valle, the emotional pitcher who for years has dominated in Cuba, is considered to be as good as El Duque, if not better. Cuba even has its own Muhammad Ali: the great heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson, three-time Olympic gold medal winner, who physically resembles Ali and who can also float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

For Fidel Castro, success in sports symbolically equates to success for the Revolution. Cuba funnels young athletes into various ministries of sport. Rather than dwell in fear of future defections, officials proudly anticipate success in the 2008 Olympics. Love of sport and country is greater, they say, than American love of money.

Cuban athletes live in squalor, according to Price. "Each time a player bounds out smiling, he trails behind him the unmistakable odor of a toilet that will never flush." Cuba's starving athletes are like starving artists whose work is censored. Even the biggest stars can be banned from their beloved sport if they say the wrong things, associate with American agents, or -- in the case of El Duque -- if a brother defects.

For Cuban athletes, the lure of American fame and riches -- and the chance to compete on a bigger, grander scale -- is strong. The price of leaving, however, is prohibitively steep -- not to mention the danger. Valle is unwilling to leave the one thing more important to him than baseball: his family. Others, such as Ana Quirot, who recovered from third-degree burns to be a silver medalist in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, are still loyal to Castro.

Price's initial impression of Cuba is that of a mysterious and pulsating island, where extranjeros (tourists) are ever willing to buy sex from jineteras (prostitutes): "Go for the old cars or girls or rum, or a Cold War thrill, or a night at Kid Chocolate on a balmy winter evening, and you can convince yourself that any number of illusions are real." Tracking sports authorities from Havana to Guantánamo, Price is bombarded by revolutionary propaganda, hassled by bureaucracy, nearly killed on a perilous highway, and ultimately depressed by the poverty. Athletes are gracious but elusive, their answers often abrupt or suspect. Official doublespeak evokes Orwell's 1984. What begins as an adventure ends as a nightmare.

The famous photographer Raul Corrales "still believes mightily in the revolution, and I suppose it's all a matter of what you choose to see," Price observes. Ultimately, what the embittered author of this thought-provoking book sees is an antiquated and corrupt political regime that exploits the very athletes who care so deeply about their country. (Brenn Jones)

Carl Hiaasen
Pitching Around Fidel offers a rare and provocative tour of the world's most remarkable sports culture. It's an unforgettable story of supremely gifted athletes, the utter madness of politics, and the scent of big money across the sea.
Business Week
Pitching Around Fidel takes the wider view, poking its nose into the politics and culture of Cuba every few pages. Price has an easy, lyrical style that elevates his work beyond the usual sports fare.
Sports Illustrated
Bienvenides a Cuba! Few subjects induce more visceral arguments than our little island neighbor to the south and the furry comandante who rules it. But Pitching Around Fidel is a rarity: a balanced, compassionate, intimate journal of Cuba's slow, agonizing decay.
Caribbean Travel & Life
Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Hear of Cuban Sports [is] a work that offers a better glimpse into the heart and soul of the island than most guidebooks...Price has a sportswriter's wonderful knack for cutting straight to the marrow of any moment...If you are planning a trip to Cuba, then read this book. And if you aren't, then reading it will make you reconsider.
Baseball America
S.L. Price's Pitching Around Fidel...is easily the most engaging book on Cuban sports—if not Cuba—published in many years.
Library Journal
Price, a writer for Sports Illustrated, made many trips to Cuba and interviewed countless athletes, fans, and politicos for this fascinating account of contemporary Cuban sports. During Castro's rule, his country has produced myriad baseball, boxing, volleyball, and track champions, but recent defections and other signs of discontent indicate that the national system for developing and supporting world-class players is crumbling. Economic, political, and social depression have driven Cuban superstars such as Orlando "El Duque" Hern ndez and Rey Ordo ez to seek asylum in the United States. Here they found inflated fame and fortune, of course, and the author also takes U.S. major leagues to task for devaluing loyalty between teams and players. Colorful characters abound in chapters that are part travelog, part expos . Highly recommended for public libraries.--Will Hepfer, SUNY at Buffalo Libs. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
A senior writer at Sports Illustrated presents an impressionistic analysis of the primacy of sports in Cuban culture. In a volume that is as much cultural anthropology as sports writing, Price examines a Cuba that remains obsessed with the considerable achievements of its principal athletes despite pervasive poverty and increasing numbers of defectors who flee to the US in search of riches. Price visited the island many times and here assembles a pleasant patchwork that adheres only incidentally to chronology. Beginning with the March 1998 signing by the New York Yankees of Cuban phenom Orlando `El Duque` Hernandez (`the best pitcher in modern Cuban history`), Price then moves back and forth in time, attempting to discover why Cuba remains `one of the last places where athletes play for little more than love of the game.` Along the way he manages to interview some of Cuba's greatest athletic heroes, including former Olympic standouts Teofilo Stevenson (boxing) and Alberto Juantorena (track), and baseball greats Lazaro Valle (a talented pitcher on the downside of his career) and Jose Ramon Cabrera (a first baseman who fell from grace in a Black Sox-like scandal). Among the most touching episodes are Price's encounters with the Olympic middle-distance runner Ana Quirot, who, though disfigured in a kitchen fire in 1993, returned to win a silver medal in the 1996 Olympics. She has become such an inspiration to Cubans than some fans merely `touch her shoulders and start to cry.` But these are not traditional Q&A interviews. Price encounters athletes in the streets, meets them in restaurants, goes to their homes, bar-hops across Havana with them. He also explodes the persistentcanardthat Castro was a talented pitcher. In lyrical and immediate prose (he employs the present tense throughout) Price describes a lovely, proud, impoverished people caught in repressive system that destroys thousands as it celebrates a handful.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060196608
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/1/2000
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

S. L. Price, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated since 1994, has been called a “Master of the New Journalism” by the New York Times. An award-winning former columnist and feature writer at the Miami Herald and the Sacramento Bee, he is also the author of Far Afield, which Esquire named one of the five best books of 2007, and Heart of the Game, which was named the #1 baseball book of 2009 by Baseball America.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Cadiz prefect informed me that at eight o'clock the
following morning I would be sent to Havana, for which,by
happy chance, a steamer was sailing that day.

"Where?"
"To Havana."
"Ha-van-a?"
"Havana."
"I won't go voluntarily."
-Leon Trotsky, My Life

I am George Washington. I am Abe Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson and, if things work out perfectly, I just might end up being Benjamin Franklin. I know: Little Daddy is trying to be nice. He laughs at my jokes and gets us beer and, yes, earlier we even had one of those serendipitous moments that can spark a warm friendship. But I'm an American and Little Daddy needs dollars like everyone else in Cuba, so in the moments when I look away at some sixteen-year-old hooker or take a pull at my Buchanero, I can feel him turn off the charm long enough to cut me up into currency. Five dollars? Twenty dollars? Maybe I'm good for more drinks, a shirt, a dinner, even straight cash. I try not to mind. After all, we sit right at the heart of the Havana hustle, in a bar called Castillo de Farnes that, at this time of night, serves as a hub for every kind of dealer, pimp, prostitute, gigolo, and beggar. And I am money.

Little Daddy is a baseball fanatic. Every day, with about a hundred other men, he makes his way to the shade of Havana's Parque Central to take part in La Pena, which is the semiofficial name for what was once called La Esquina Caliente-the Hot Corner-and what is no more than a bunch of red-faced aficionados standing in front of park benches for hours on end, yelling at one another aboutCuban baseball, about who is great and who sucks, about those who left the country and those who stayed behind. Little Daddy keeps detailed statistics, watches games every night. But at forty-five he is also younger than most of the men at La Pena, with the face of a beefed-up Shaft, and he has six kids and no job. "My wife and I, we fuck, fuck, fuck," he says, defeated. "It's loco."

We sit at a table near the door, watching the parade of jineteras— lady jockeys-clop by in chunky high heels and stunningly similar pink, lime, or orange Day-Glo spandex outfits. They are very thin or very fat. They walk slow to the bar and ask for water, rake the crowd with dead eyes, wait for someone to start talking.

"It's good for the heart."

I look over and Little Daddy is nodding, smiling, tapping his chest. First I think he's talking about sex, but after an instant I realize he means our little stroke of luck. Earlier in the day, we'd been to Havana's grand ballpark, Estadio Latinoamericano, to see Havana's Metropolitanos team play its final regular season doubleheader against Matanzas. The place held no more than three hundred people, and as the second game began we were heading for the street when I saw something I'd never seen before on a baseball field. A player rolled a bunt so gently, so perfectly down the third base line that no one could be sure it wouldn't go foul; and he was so fast that by the time the mesmerized fielders snapped to, he stood on second with a clean double.

"He's tied the record!" Little Daddy yelled then, grabbing my arm, and so it was: Seventeen-year-old center fielder Yasser Gomez, the youngest Cuban big leaguer since the great Omar Linares broke in as a sixteen-year-old in 1985, had tied the twenty-nine-year-old National Series record for hits by a rookie. My first ball game this year, and I stumble on gold. So Little Daddy spent the rest of the afternoon finding out where Gomez lives, and by 9:30 P.M. we were choking on fumes in the back of a' 46 Dodge gypsy cab on the way to a small apartment on Calle Espada.

We knocked on the door, unexpected. Yasser was on the couch, watching TV with his attractively bored girlfriend; his shirtless, cannonball-gutted father strode about, beer in hand. A poster of then Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza hung on the living room wall. I tried to apologize for the late hour, but Little Daddy and Yasser's mother, Lola, just gasped at each other, eyes wide. As a teenager, Little Daddy had dated Lola's sister, been close friends with Lola, and the two hadn't seen either since. We're in. The family would love to talk. We made plans and left.

"I knew her thirty years ago!" Little Daddy sighs now. "Can you believe it?" We shake our heads and drink in tandem, marveling at the idea of ever being teenagers. It's our one unique experience, wholly devoid of commerce, and I sense a breakthrough. I try to get crafty. Women flow around us like river around stones, so I say things seem worse since I was here two years ago: more hookers in the street. More in this room, notably.

For it was on the early morning of January 9, 1959, in the dim morning hours after rolling into Havana and giving his first major speech in the capital as Maximum Leader-a white dove landed on his shoulder then, sending an otherworldly shiver through millions—that a thirty-two-year-old Castro came to the Castillo de Farnes with his brother Raul and Che Guevara.He had eaten many meals here as a law student, no doubt haranguing his companeros about the Batista era's corruption and prostitution, vowing that things would be different if only he were in charge.And now he had won.A picture of the men on that triumphant morning hangs in a hallway here, but it has none of the calculated romance found in the work of revolutionary photographers Raul Corrales or Alberto Korda...

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2000

    Very, very interesting

    As a sports enthusiast, I couldn't put this book down. Price goes into the former homes and meets with the abandoned families of some of today's most famous Cuban exile - turned American Major League stars and shares with us what was left behind in their quest for freedom, fame and fortune on the other side of the sea. Even the non-sports person will find this to be an educational and enlightening story. Price takes us from the shores of freedom where pro athletes make obscene amounts of money to the ghettos of Cuba where star athletes have to sweep floors and wash dishes for a living. He discusses how the banning of all professional sports in Cuba has led to amature leagues that have produced real, world class players and competitors in baseball, boxing and track and field. The joy in the true 'Love of the Game' however, is not without the tragedy of horrible poverty. Homes with eroding ceilings and leaky faucets and the single mother's left behind by some of America's baseball heros is as disheartening as it is enlightening. I highly recommend this book.

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