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From Barnes & NobleThe 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)