Fidel & Me
“This is Fidel Castro,” said the voice at the other end once I hobbled into the kitchen and answered the phone.
“Right, and I'm Napoleon,” I snapped. “That you, Peachy? Or Freddy?”
“Amigo, slowly please. Hablas espanol?”
“Not mucho. Why don't you cut the crap and tell me who this is?”
“Is Castro. As in Cuba.”
“Not as in Castro Convertibles?”
“Que? You are Rabbit Jenkins?”
“Sure as hell ain't Rabbit Maranville.”
“You want pitcher?”
“Yup, a pitcher of beer! Now tell me who this is, or I'm hanging up.”
“You played in Cuban Winter League, si?”
“At Estadio del Cerro.”
“So you know Cuban baseball?”
“Buddy, I've seen Camilo Pascual, Ramos, Minoso, Cuellar, and the greatest of 'em all.”
“Martin Dihigo, who I watched played centerfield and go four for four in the first half of a doubleheader, then take the mound and beat Satchel Paige in the nightcap.”
“Entonces, important you come to Havana.”
“Can't wait,” I said, still figuring the call was a put-on, a prank, or a practical joke. “Anything else while I'm at it?”
“Bring contract, por favor.”
“And a pen?”
It was 1961, and the world was an easier place. Kennedy was still in the White House, there were only three networks on TV, and there was no need to worry about computers being down at the bank, or an idiot texting while driving.
I could still get my kind of music on the radio -- Dee Clark singing Raindrops, Ben E. King with Stand By Me, Ike & Tina doing I Think It's Gonna Work Out Fine. And there were immortals like Mays, Koufax, and Clemente playing baseball. And Oscar Robertson gearing up to average a triple-double in the NBA before anyone even knew or cared about what that was.
But Cuba? Where I had the time of my life playing against locals like Silvio Garcia, Minoso, and Pascual? And Big Leaguers like Max Lanier and Sal Maglie? And even Negro Leaguers like Buck O'Neill, Monte Irvin, plus a guy from my hometown named Don Newcombe who ought to be enshrined in Cooperstown? Cuba, where the people were friendly and the food tasty? Where mojitos flowed and the nightlife was like nowhere else on earth? Cuba was off-limits thanks to an embargo imposed by JFK, but only after he scored 1,200 -- yes, 1,200! -- of his favorite Havana cigars.
So even though a part of me was still dubious, I can't deny that I found myself wondering more and more with each passing day whether the call was bogus, real, or just plain imagined. And, since there's always been a measure of “bad boy” in me, more and more hopeful that I might get back to what had been an island playground.
When, lo and behold, a messenger showed up one afternoon with a packet in hand, I couldn't wait to tear the damn thing open. Sure enough, inside were tickets reversing the route taken by Twins great Tony Oliva, who was signed in a little Cuban town called Pinar del Rio by a scouting legend named Papa Joe Cambria, then snuck into the U.S. post-embargo via Mexico.
First a flight to Cancun, then a puddle-jumper to Havana.
The world of baseball, for those not in the know, is fueled by gab. Players shoot the shit in the bullpen, the dugout, and the clubhouse. Managers talk with their coaches and players, jaw at the umpires, and, depending upon their mood, converse or quarrel with sportswriters. Execs wheel and deal on their cellphones. And scouts yack relentlessly in the stands. Chatter is so important to the game that there's a saying that no prospect can be worth anything if he's not spoken of in airports. And that's not even mentioning chirping from fans or rants on sports radio and ESPN.
I, personally, have never been considered tight-lipped, to the point where, in the days before the internet, the joke among my buddies was that there were three ways to spread a rumor: telephone, telegraph, or tell-a-Jeff. But in this situation I had powerful reasons to keep my mouth shut. First, the last thing I needed was to have the government getting on me for a not-particularly-legal trip, especially if I wound up coming home empty-handed. But even more important, given how cut-throat scouting was, is, and always will be, I needed to make sure others didn't horn in on what I hoped would be a signing coup.
In fact, I couldn't even tell the team I was scouting for, since I didn't want to risk having them say “Why bother?” Or worse, “Don't.” But I knew from experience that they'd be ecstatic if I were to inform them that I had miraculously managed to find -- and sign -- a phenom who threw in the high 90's. Or had pin-point accuracy. Or proved to be 6'9”. Then it would be like the owner of the Yankees who used to threaten to trade any guy seen drinking in public to Kansas City, then would wink and say “Except you,” to a guy named Mantle.
The night before my departure was a sleepless trip down memory lane. I couldn't stop thinking about Winter League games when I was still considered a prospect -- not yet suspect, and a few years away from being a reject -- against teams like Cienfuegos, Marinanao, and Almendares. And the off-hours casino-hopping we, as celebrities of sorts, did at the Sans Souci, the Riviera, and the Nacional. And the special treatment at the Tropicana and the Copa Room, where, even on our modest salaries, we got to see local talent like Benny More and Celia Cruz, plus imports including Nat King Cole and Sinatra.
It was a paradise where the beaches were glorious, the water warm, and the chicas so welcoming that guys used to joke about international relations and offshore drilling.
But, if newspapers and TV were to be believed, all that had become ancient history.
Yet if everything I loved on the island was gone -- including not just Winter League baseball, but also the culture that led to jokes like Honey, is that a belt or a skirt? -- then how and why was I heading there to check out a pitching prospect? And why in hell did Castro, the man responsible for the change, want me?
When it comes to airplanes, I call myself a defensive flier. Ever since the days when New Yorkers used to argue incessantly over who was better, Mantle, Mays, or Snider, if I find myself seated on a flight next to a guy who might even possibly be a baseball fan, I grow uncharacteristically quiet. Asked what I do for a living, I have a pat response: “I work for the IRS.” That puts a stop to chit-chat with know-it-alls and second-guessers.
Fortunately I was spared that dodge on the flight to Cancun, since I had an entire row to myself. That allowed me to daydream about the kind of Cuban pitcher I might be seeing.
Since scouting in baseball is based not just on finding talent, but on likening future young players to stars from the past or present -- to sell a big, strong righty pitcher, label him another another Roger Clemens or Bob Feller... call a rangy righty another John Smoltz or Steven Strasberg... describe a soft-throwing lefty as another Bobby Shantz, or Tommy Glavine, or Jamie Moyer -- the daydreaming was far from an indulgence. It was a way to get me thinking about the kind of hurlers Cuba had produced.
There was Camilo Pascual, with the greatest righty curveball I've ever seen. And Mike Cuellar, the personification of the crafty lefty. Plus Luis Tiant, who hid the ball like a magician and drove batters crazy by changing arm angles. And Martin Dihigo, that regal creature who would say to his teammates “Get me one run, and I'll do the rest,” then hit one out of the park himself to provide the run he needed.
By the time I was on the flight from Cancun to Havana, my mind was racing so fast that I was convincing myself I was about to find that era's “El Duque,” or Livan Hernandez, or Jose Contreras, or Aroldis Chapman.
When it comes to heat and humidity, there's what people in New York bitch about. Then there's the Cuban version: total steam bath. That's what hit me as I got off the plane in Havana -- that plus confirmation that the place I once knew had changed more than I could have imagined.
To me there are three possibilities when it comes to change. There's change for the better, there's change for the worse, and then there's change that's simply change. Havana fit all three categories.
Change for the better was apparent right at the airport, where people de color who weren't top-flight musicians or athletes were no longer stuck in menial jobs. Change for the worse, I noticed while being driven to my hotel, owed to the kind of foreigners visible on the streets. Instead of fun-loving tourists, I saw grim-looking Russians -- no-nonsense bureaucrats in cheap suits who seemed not to know, or care, about having a good time. As for change that's simply change, that was obvious when I saw that Meyer Lansky's Hotel Riviera had become the Havana Libre, as though renaming a building was going to improve life in Cuba.
Snap judgments? Absolutely! But that's what scouting's about. And it was because I was a scout -- not a journalist, anthropologist, or sociologist -- that I was back on the island.
Did Cubans on the street seem happier? The answer, for the most part, was Yes. Did the crowds look different, and not just because of the years that had gone by? The answer was an even more resounding Yes. But as I learned, a lot of that owed not to the principles of the Revolution, or to the billboards of Fidel and Che, but to the fact that most of the people who fled the island were white.
As I was driven through the streets I found myself doing what scouts are trained to do: making a projection. With the passage of time, I determined, in part due to the exodus, but also to the ever-increasing number of mixed marriages, Cuba would become a black country -- another Haiti, only Spanish.
But because of the good times I had in my playing days, what struck me most was that despite greater equality, Havana didn't seem happy. Or have the glow I remembered. Or, despite the slogans on walls, have much that promised hope.
Not only was the gambling trade gone -- and with it the dollars that poured in, even if most went to the Mob and the corrupt government -- but even with aid from the Russians, the embargo was crippling the economy. So even with a new kind of fairness, life sure wasn't easy. As a local baseball guy said to me, “They can feed me all the Revolutionary yack-yack, but I'd rather eat arroz con pollo.”
Though my serious boozing was little more than a memory, once I was checked into the Nacional I ambled down to the bar. For old times sake, I downed a mojito that was a hundred times better than the sugary concoction they sell in America. Then, since my ride was late -- proving that Revolution or no Revolution, what we used to call Caribbean Time, meaning things happened when they happened, was still the case -- I did what scouts, who are notoriously underpaid, have done for as long as professional baseball has been played: I put another one on my host's tab.
I've got friends who claim that Swedish blondes are the prettiest women on earth, and others who give their vote to the French or the Thais. But for me the most attractive by far are the Cubans. That belief wasn't diminished when into the bar came a cafe con leche vision whose looks weren't hampered by the army uniform she was sporting.
“I am Comrade Dayana,” she said with only a trace of an accent. “Bienvenido to our proud but humble country.”
“Offer you a mojito?” I asked while trying not to ogle or gape.
“Not while I am working. But por favor, finish yours.”
“You were surprised to see a woman?” Comrade Dayana asked as we walked toward her Russian-made Lada, which was parked in a privileged spot in front of the hotel. “Or because I am mulatta?”
Coming from a world where calling someone a mulatto is enough to start a fight, I was taken aback by the question, in the same way that I would wince the next couple of days when I heard people addressed each other as negrito or negrita. Despite Comrade Dayana's explanation that words of that sort were not derogatory or “loaded” -- that in a country where race was less of a bugaboo with each passing week, and where billboards proclaimed No Aye Racismo En Cuba! they were simple statements of fact often meant to be endearing -- it was hard for me not to flinch.
So though there was truth to Comrade Dayana's questions, I tried my best not to let on.
“Me?” I asked with as much innocence as I could muster. “Surprised?”
While driving, Comrade Dayana took it upon herself to prep me. Though the official title of the man I would be meeting was Prime Minister, I was told to address him as Comandante. But when talking about him with other Cubans, because of what she referred to as egalitarian socialist principles, it was best to refer to him simply as Fidel.
And, she added, it was wise never to contradict him.
“Whoa!” was my immediate response. “How's that egalitarian?”
“Bueno,” Comrade Dayana replied with a shrug. “Let's say there's egalitarian and egalitarian.”
Though I didn't push the issue, I couldn't resist a smile.
If there's one key word in scouting, it's observe, and that's something I did plenty of as we approached what Comrade Dayana called a finca.
“Tough working in a slum,” I teased while nearing a manor worthy of a sugar baron.
It was Comrade Dayana's turn to shrug as we headed up the driveway.
“It's el espirito that matters -- the spirit -- not the surroundings,” she said with less than her usual conviction.
“Whatever you say.”
Watching me take in the magnificence of a dwelling whose grandeur and grounds weren't the least bit diminished by the presence of soldiers who looked like they'd been trucked in from the country just a week before, Comrade Dayana darkened.
“You will --” she said awkwardly.
When she hesitated, I finished the thought for her.
“We'll see,” I said.
Entering the house, I could sense right away that even in a society of equals, Comrade Dayana was considered more than equal, which probably owed almost as much to her looks as to her job.
She led me into a sitting room, where a soldier promptly joined us with a bottle of aged rum.
“Care for some?” Comrade Dayana asked.
“Only if you'll join me.”
“Not while I am wor --”
Before she could finish the thought, a voice interrupted her.
“Is not work, is beisbol.”
I turned to see a bearded man in army fatigues enter with his hand extended. “I am Fidel.”
“Sure fooled me,” I cracked, getting a befuddled look that gave way to a smile.
I've seen it written that Castro is 6'3”. But since part of a scout's job is what's called sizing up, I'd say that's an exaggeration. Most guys, you come to realize when you do what I do, claim to be an inch or two taller than they really are. And that was clearly the case here.
Taking the bottle of Ron Anejo from the soldier, who treated that as a signal to leave, Fidel poured glasses for Comrade Dayana, me, and himself, then held up his glass.
“To the island that always has -- and always will -- produce los mejores peloteros ---
“Baseball players,” Comrade Dayana translated.
“-- In America latino. Y mucho tambien. The most.”
“Yesterday probably,” I responded without clinking glasses. “Manana I'm not so sure.”
Comrade Dayana cringed, convinced that the Comandante, having been contradicted, was about to explode. Instead Fidel stared at me.
“He wants you to tell him.”
“Trujillo's gone,” I said, referring to the Dominican dictator who wouldn't let ballplayers leave his island.
“So the Dodgers send a scout -- a Cuban named Rafael Avila -- to find talent.”
“Pero -- but -- they have no historia en Las Grandas Ligas,” said Fidel defensively.
“No history in the Great Leagues,” said our pretty comrade.
“Major Leagues,” I corrected her. “But he's forgetting Felipe Alou and Julian Javier. And that as we speak they're building an academy.”
“Una academia,” Comrade Dayana explained to Fidel, who frowned.
“Vamos a ver,” Castro grunted.
“We'll see,” Comrade Dayana echoed.
Fidel grew more upbeat once the three of us moved into the dining room for a meal that, frankly, was more revolting than revolutionary. While Comrade Diana shuffled the mystery meat that was served back and forth across her plate, and I focused on the rice and platanos, the Comandante splattered gravy in his beard while lecturing about Jose Marti, Simon Bolivar, and other guys who probably couldn't hit a curveball.
After dinner, in what was clearly prearranged, our pretty Comrade excused herself as El Jefe pulled out a couple of cigars.
“Is muy dificile running a country,” he said after lighting first my Cubano, then his own. “Beisbol is better.”
I nodded in agreement. “So tell me about your prospect.”
“We like lefties. Young?”
“Experienced is good if he knows how to get guys out.”
“No one hits him,” El Comandante said proudly. “No one.”
“So when do I see him?”
If the truth be known, I'm a dog. I can give all the lip service in the world to things like morals, scruples, and ethics, but the fact is I pad my expense account, I exaggerate whenever I think it'll help, and I bend rules any time I can. That's why I was hoping that the fix was in: that in order to make me even more receptive for what I would see the next day, El Comandante had set it up for Comrade Dayana to keep me company for the night.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. “Buenas noches,” my driver said as we pulled up toward my hotel.
Comrade Dayana leaned toward me, then kissed me chastely on the cheek.
“See you at noon.”
I'm not big on heebie-jeebies. But there's no better term to describe what I felt the next morning. With no access to the junk on TV that I use as a distraction at home, I roamed the hotel for a while, then went outside and wandered the streets. Right away I started comparing not just the Havana around me to the place I remembered, but also the guy I'd become to the one who had such a great time years before.
Somehow, dramatic as they were, the changes to the island did not seem as drastic as the changes in me. Gone were my hopes and dreams, gone the ambition that burned inside of me, gone the sense of discovery that used to greet every new day. In their place was a guy whose best days seemed to be behind him, whose body was filled with aches and pains, and who seemed for the most part to be marking time.
But how in hell could I feel sorry for myself, I realized, when I was in Habana Vieja, passing a bar where Benny More's great Como Fue was playing on an antique jukebox?
And when on top of that a couple of pretty girls smiled at me, I suddenly felt a lot better about life, myself, and the world.
Back at the hotel, I got another dose of Caribbean Time while waiting outside for Comrade Dayana.
“Ready to make history?” she asked when at last she pulled up in her Lada.
“I'll settle for seeing a good pitcher.”
The first thing I noticed as we approached Havana's great ballpark, which we used to call the Colossus, was that its name had been changed to Estadio LatinoAmericano. But other than that, beisbol in Cuba was still baseball. The stands were packed, the fans raucous, and though the uniforms were no longer top quality, the action was excellent.
As further proof that even in the new Cuba some people were more equal than others, I was led by Comrade Dayana to a special spot directly behind home plate.
“So which one is the phenom?” I asked once we were seated.
“You will know,” she said mysteriously.
For those who are only familiar with baseball as it's played in the U.S., watching in the Caribbean is entirely different. A ball's still a ball, a strike's a strike, and a hit-and-run's a hit-and-run. But nowhere in the States will you ever see scantily-clad girls climb spontaneously on top of the dugout to dance. Or fans sharing bottles of rum with friends, family, and even strangers. Or players doing cartwheels while headed toward the dugout.
It's a reminder that baseball, far from being just a business, can still be a game.
Yet though I was having fun watching Cuban beisbol, the suspense was starting to mount. Sensing my impatience, Comrade Dayana brought us some fried chicken with platanos and black beans, then squeezed my arm reassuringly.
“Soon,” she promised.
Sure enough, as I was finishing my last drumstick, I heard a strange rumble in the stands.
I've seen a lot during a lifetime in baseball. What seems like a million years ago I saw Bill Veeck bring out 3'7” Eddie Gaedel to pinch hit. Later I saw one-handed Jim Abbott pitch a no-hitter. And Randy Johnson accidentally nail a dove with a fastball. I watched the Royals get victimized by a flock of seagulls. And witnessed a ball hitting Jose Canseco in the head, then caroming into the stands for a home run. But in all my years I've never experienced anything like the standing ovation given the bearded lefty who was trotting in from the dugout to take the mound.
Fidel Castro, El Comandante himself, was coming in to pitch!
As never before, my mind started racing. How in the world would I break the news to my boss if the head of a Communist country threw well?
Then an even darker thought hit me. What if he's no good? Would I ever get off the island? Or be stuck the rest of my days rotting in a cell in Cuba?
From my privileged spot behind home plate, I held my breath as Fidel took his warm-up pitches, then relaxed somewhat when at least he threw strikes.
But once the inning started, it turned out that didn't matter, since the umpire made certain that any pitch that didn't bounce, or sail over the batter's head, or hit someone, was a called strike. If, that is, the batter chose not to deliberately swing and miss. More often than not, that was the case, as hitters who moments before had been pounding 90 mile-per-hour fastballs suddenly struggled with El Comandante's high school level fastballs and dinky curves.
I'd heard the term Theater of the Absurd, but never before had any clue what it actually meant. And all the while, the fans cheered madly.
If then and there I could have escaped from the island, or turned into the Invisible Man, I would have jumped at the chance. But instead I had to smile at Comrade Dayana, then wait uncomfortably until it was time to give my scouting report to the man who controlled my fate.
Thankfully, my years of scouting had groomed me well in the art of salesmanship. Many times I'd found the need to persuade a two- or three-sport athlete that his future was rosier in baseball than in football, basketball, or track. Or to convince a high school phenom and his parents that it was better to sign a contract than to accept a scholarship to a college where he might tear up a shoulder, dislocate an elbow, or break a leg. Or to sweet-talk a prospect into flubbing or even skipping another team's pre-draft workout.
But those were kids who had less influence over my life than Fidel Castro.
Girding myself, I was racking my brain for things to say when I was whisked, without Comrade Dayana, to a Cadillac with tinted windows.
“You want me?” El Comandante asked with more hope in his voice than a Little Leaguer after his first tryout.
“I'd love to have you,” I replied, watching my host beam. “But --”
“We have a rule,” I said, improvising. “Not me, but the team --”
“No rookie over 30.”
“What is rookie?”
“A new player.”
“But I am not new player.”
“Here, you're not. But in the Major Leagues?”
“Is crazy!” Fidel protested.
“Life is crazy.”
Shaken, Fidel's lip started to quiver.
“Is anything --” he started to say.
“I can do? I'll talk to other teams if you'd like. But if you want to hear the truth --”
“I think your country needs you more than baseball does.”
El Comandante ruminated for a moment, then brightened.
“Quizas...” he said softly. “Maybe...”
I have never been particularly interested in current events, to the point where my relationship with newspapers for most of my life was largely limited to the sports section and movie reviews. But since that scouting trip to end all scouting trips, not a day has gone by when I haven't checked to see what's going on in Cuba. I kept tabs on the craziness at the Bay of Pigs, and followed the economic nightmare known as the Special Period. I monitored the ill will between their government and ours during the time of W, the easing of tensions under Obama, and the surprising transmission of power from Fidel to his brother.
And through it all I've wondered what would have, could have, or might have happened if, by some strange quirk of fate, Fidel had been the possessor of a 95 mile-per-hour fastball.
And I've wondered what happened to Comrade Dayana.
And most of all I've wondered -- not every day but often enough -- if I'll ever have another chance to be part of history.
©2014 by Alan Swyer