Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball
by Matt Welch
A Season to Remember
The 1997-98 baseball season in Cuba was arguably the most turbulent since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
Just prior to Opening Day, 100 miles north in the exile capital of Miami, 22-year-old defector Liván Hernandez was named MVP of the World Series, marking the highest-profile Cuban performance in Las Grandes Ligas since Luis Tiant faced Tony Pérez in the 1975 Fall Classic.
Two months later, Liván's half-brother Orlando -- far and away the best Cuban pitcher of the last two decades -- fled the island by boserve praise. At the time of the key 1997-98 season, the only English-language sources of information were the odd magazine article, and chapters in books on other topics, such as Tom Miller's Trading With the Enemy, Peter Bjarkman's Baseball with a Latin Beat, Rob Ruck's The Tropic of Baseball, and Michael & Mary Oleksak's Béisbol.
Now, just two years (and two El Duque World Series rings) later, we have Echevarría's epic and lyrical history, Bjarkman's flawed but evocative illustrated short Smoke (reviewed here previously), S.L. Price's new Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey Into the Heart of Cuban Sports, and Jamail's Full Count. (Bjarkman's comprehensive Baseball and Castro's Revolution is not yet available.)
Debunking old myths
Jamail's contribution shows an admirable reverence for truth over ideology, and an equally admirable restraint in the several instances where his research corrects or renders ridiculous previous reportage on Cuban baseball. For instance, after a typically effective section where Jamail illustrates through anecdote and number-crunching how young players are systematically identified and developed on all corners of the island, he briefly mentions an ABC News report broadcast during the Pope's visit --
"Although there are baseball stadiums dotting the island, the ABC crew found a field with grass a foot high and grazing goats. Reporter Kevin Newman interviewed a young man, perhaps sixteen years old, playing baseball there. His dream, he told Newman, was to play on equipo Cuba. Both the young man and Newman smiled and the piece ended. A sixteen-year-old who has not been identified as a prospect has about as much chance of playing on equipo Cuba as a person singing in the New York subway has of being selected to join the Metropolitan Opera."
Boom, just like that, then he moves on.
Shadowy agent Joe Cubas, the fat man in the Panama hat who has helped engineer most of the recent Cuban defections, gets the same treatment: a quick and clean debunking that does not intrude on a necessary description.
"Cubas exaggerates the intrigue surrounding many of the defections, lowers the age of the players, and often inflates their capabilities," Jamail writes, before quickly proving his allegations, then moving on.
Beyond the correctives, Jamail adds plenty of new information to the current scholarship. We learn that much-coveted Omar Linares, probably the world's best third baseman since Mike Schmidt retired, has a pretty good reason for staying on the island and mouthing Socialist platitudes -- his father, a third-grade dropout from the backwater of Pinar del Río, owed his own ballplaying career to the Revolution, which made the superhuman effort to develop baseball (and literacy, and medicine) in the neglected countryside, and brought him to Havana to play in the new amateur leagues.
We also get an excellent glimpse inside the decision-making of the baseball policy establishment (which, Jamail concludes, is ultimately directed by a very hands-on Fidel), and how it was shaken up after the Barcelona fiasco. Before and during the 1997-98 season, Cuba got a new baseball commissioner, a new national team manager, and general manager. The selection process for the international squad was overhauled to more accurately reflect performance in the Serie Nacional (giving older stars both a better shot and stronger incentive to play hard during the season).
In March 1998, officials smoothed over hard feelings by holding a rare and heartwarming All-Star game that honored past and future stars, and then by ending the internal exile of the island's best shortstop, German Mesa.
Mesa, a tremendously popular Ozzie Smith-style player who had kept Rey Ordóñez mired on the bench, was a symbol of the sport's dispiriting lack of direction from 1996-98. Now, he was the leadoff hitter for a new beginning.
The ring of truth
As chance would have it, I was in Havana during the 1997-98 season, saw a half-dozen games, talked to a few of Jamail's sources, and left right before the great March turnaround. The experience was strong, and I wanted to write a long article about it, but never did.
If you have ever read someone's reporting on something you know well, or at least witnessed, you know how often journalists get their theses wrong, not to mention crimes they commit with common facts.
That's why I find it so impressive that Jamail -- at least according to my experiences and biases -- does not ring a single false note in his descriptions. He identifies the most knowledgable baseball minds in the country (especially historian Severo Nieto, radio personality Edel Casas, and the Parque Central crew), does an excellent job portraying the talk-show debates on Radio Rebelde, details how punishingly difficult it is for fans to get even the most basic info (like stats), and extracts from the available Cuban sources useful tidbits such as the real ages and career records of defectors.
Conversations with everyday fans and vivid descriptions of post-game parking lots, exactly mirror my experience. The only missteps I encountered were two typos misspelling the names of reporter S.L. Price and Congressman Robert Menendez.
Furthermore, he is generous in his praise and singling out of every good source of information about Cuban baseball, from El Nuevo Herald writer Jorge Morejón to everyone mentioned above. Then he goes out and pulls off neat little additional reporting flourishes, such as interviewing a minor-league defector and then going back to his home village and interviewing his buddies, or following a 50-year-old recollection by an old Cuban fan with an interview with the ex-major leaguer he remembered so fondly.
U.S. – Cuba relations
One of the surprising results of his toil is a fairly lengthy treatment of how U.S.-Cuba baseball relations have been bandied about by the American defense establishment over the years, from Henry Kissinger to George Steinbrenner. In one especially humorous passage, Ollie North "proves" to Tom Brokaw that Cubans are infiltrating Nicaragua by showing maps of military camps with ballparks, and explaining: "Nicaraguans don't play baseball. Cubans play baseball" -- even though, as Jamail points out, "baseball was introduced in Nicaragua at the turn of the century and was far and away the dominant sport of the country."
This probing of the great divide between the two neighboring countries is a way of getting to what Jamail clearly considers the central frustrating paradox: "Cuba produces a surplus of players, and the United States does not produce enough quality players to fill out the rosters of 30 major league teams. The solution to both problems? Cuban players reentering U.S. professional baseball."
Here, I fear, Jamail is stepping into the 41-year-old quagmire of Cubologists everywhere: trying to rationally discuss policy scenarios while Fidel Castro is still in power. His proposals range from the sensible (allowing ballplayers, just like members of the Buena Vista Social Club, to earn dollars in the U.S. but still be able to return home) to the absurd (convincing the cash-starved Cuban government to pay stars $10,000 a year, instead of the current $240 or so in pesos), but all are almost surely irrelevant until Castro dies. You sense that Jamail himself acknowledges as much by the end of book, when his pessimism and weariness of dealing with Communists finally boil to the surface --
"Those interested in the return of Cuban players to major league baseball need to look to a Cuba without the embargo and without Fidel. Anything less means major league teams will be limited to exhibition games against equipo Cuba, and the only Cubans to play in the United States will be defectors."
Jamail won't get to see Omar Linares face Pedro Martinez, and that makes him sad. Regardless, Major League Baseball has entered the Latin American era, where the Vladimir Guerreros prepare to dislodge the Manny Ramírezes, and one Hernández or another seems to win every World Series. When the Cubans are finally folded in, there will be few chroniclers better placed than Milton Jamail to explain this marvelous new baseball we're watching. And on that day, if not sooner, Full Count will properly acknowledged as a telling backgrounder, and a terrific first-draft of baseball history.