Writing La Bronca

Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball

About two-thirds of the way through his splendid ode to Cuban baseball, Milton Jamail guides us to its thumping, joyous heart, to the provincial capital of Ciego de Ávila, a central Cuban city of 85,000 residents, most of whom, it seems, are crammed into the ballpark for the island’s annual all-star game. Jamail arrives at the park early, at 9:30 a.m. But even at that hour, he is a latecomer. The gates had opened at 8:00; by 10:00, not a seat remained. And the first pitch would not be until 4 p.m.

That left just enough time for the pre-game festivities, beginning with the two-year-old who strode to the plate with a regulation bat and proceeded to take a few swings. With the crowd roaring, the toddler dropped the lumber – aluminum, actually – and headed for the pitcher’s mound, shortened, for the occasion, from sixty feet six inches to twenty-five feet from home. As Jamail describes it, the kid donned an adult glove, “glared in at the catcher, shook off a sign, and threw the ball over the plate.” Again the crowd erupted.

Full Count is full of such pleasures: wonderfully reported and engagingly written scenes that bring to life these inseparable, irrepressible forces, Cubanismo y béisbol. The book is a rare and welcome hybrid: part travel writing, part sports writing, part cultural critique. Although Jamail is saddled with scholarly credentials – he teaches government at U.T.—Austin – and although he has opted for an academic press, he is foremost a fan: an everyman whose knowledge of politics and economics sharpens and enhances his narrative.

Indeed, throughout this slim volume, Jamail deftly weaves the story of the “bronca” – the slang term that doubles for bench-clearing brawl and the tortured history of U.S.-Cuban relations. (A more felicitous word could hardly be invented.) Jamail makes clear the relationship between Cuba’s economic crisis and baseball, and the ways in which both the U.S. and Cuban governments exploit the sport to further their ongoing and bizarre cold war hostilities. (See Eliánmania.) And while his grasp is firm, his touch is light, conversational, so you almost don’t know what hit you – like a teasingly slow curve that paints the corner of the plate for a called third strike.

The book also is an exploration of the reasons for the Cuban people’s deep affection for the game. “You grow up with baseball all around you,” an outfielder for the Havana Industriales tells Jamail. “It is part of being Cuban.”

Also part of being Cuban is weighing the act of defection. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, it has been nearly impossible for ordinary Cubans to survive on their monthly wages. Baseball players, even those of extraordinary talent, earn less than thirty dollars a month – a quarter of the estimated income required for basic necessities. To make ends meet, Jamail says, Cubans of all stripes rely on relatives in the U.S. to send dollars home, and many take second jobs that feed off the tourist economy. This works better for some professions than others. “A doctor can get another doctor to cover his shift while he goes to his shift as a waiter,” a fan in Havana pointed out to Jamail. “But a ballplayer can’t say, ‘Hey, would you play first base while I go do something else to earn dollars?'”

What a ballplayer can do is defect. The half-brothers Hernández, Liván and Orlando (“El Duque”), pitching phenoms both, are the most celebrated ballplayers in recent years to have abandoned Cuba for the U.S. big leagues. (Liván, of the Florida Marlins, was the Most Valuable Player of the 1997 World Series, and El Duque won series games for the Yankees the following two seasons.) Jamail points out that most U.S. sportswriters dwell on the fabulous riches these guys rake in, but generally neglect the other side of the coin: the losses the players suffer by leaving their homeland. As Jamail’s reporting makes clear, the decision to abandon their roots is not at all an easy one. Jamail spoke not only with the Hernándezes, but tracked down Cuban players you never heard of – and likely never will, except within these pages.

Take Larry Rodríguez, a pitcher who toiled for a few years in the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system. Rodríguez defected in 1995, when his Cuba B team (the second-string national team) played a series in Venezuela. Several years later, Jamail caught up with Rodríguez in Great Falls, Montana, at a rookie league ballpark. Rodríguez had a sore arm, his career was going nowhere, and he was unsure when or if he’d see his family again. “It means leaving all that behind – your friends, your childhood, aunts, uncles, brothers, everything – to come here, by yourself and to struggle in a different world to try to reach a point where you can be successful and help your family.”

Most writers would have left Rodríguez’ story there, in the forlorn stands of a minor league park in Montana. But Jamail completed the picture, by trudging to Rodríguez’ home town, an hour’s drive west of Havana. There he found the player’s grandfather, a man in his mid-nineties, who told Jamail he’d like to visit his grandson: “I just don’t want to go on a raft.”

It is unlikely the elderly man will see his grandson again, for no reunion can occur until the U.S. ends its forty-year embargo against Cuba – an event Jamail does not see on the near horizon. The reason, as anyone who followed the sad, strange saga of little Elián must be aware, is that the embargo has little to do with ridding Cuba of Castro, and everything to do with appeasing the politically potent Cuban-American community.

But above all, Full Count is a baseball fan’s book. Jamail made six trips to Cuba during the nineties, and seems never to have tired of chatting up anyone anywhere about his passion – their passion. No such book would be complete without the author making a run at the Holy Grail of Cuban baseball questions: Was Fidel a legit prospect? Jamail queries any number of experts, but I like best his serendipitous encounter with an old guy selling newspapers in Havana’s Parque Central; the fellow had played high school ball against his future Comandante.

“Even though he played first base, he was really a pitcher,” the man recalled.

“What were Fidel’s best pitches?” Jamail asked.

“He had a great curve ball on the outside corner. And a low breaking ball that came in on the knees. And he had great control. He always had great control.”

Bill Adler, the Observer‘s Big Bend bureau chief, is at work on a radio drama about semi-pro baseball in West Texas in the years following World War II.

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