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The Ones That Got Away

On a good night in south Florida you can still catch pieces of games from all over the island--from Santa Clara and Havana and Pinar del R’o and Cienfuegos, which is home to the Elephants. The late innings breeze northward over the waves via Rebel Radio. Even if your Spanish will barely get you good directions to the restroom, there's great beauty in the thing--the old rhythms of a familiar game coming from a forbidden place in a foreign tongue. Put your ear close to the radio and you can hear la pelota itself pop into the catcher's mitt.

In Cuba, beisbol is not a pastime but a passion. It has been for 120 years, ever since the American Merchant Marine sailed into Matanzas Bay and played a few innings, stirring the locals to build their first ballpark up on the hill overlooking the town. The rest, as they say, is dialectic. And good cane field hardball. Of the ten million people on the island, only the ones snoozing in cribs fail to be stirred when it's tied in the eighth with two on and two down. No less a personage than Fidel Castro himself, who was an authentic major-league prospect before he started pitching revolution in Oriente Province, heartily endorses the local fever. "Sports is the right of the people!" he pronounced. And: "I cannot conceive of a young revolutionary who is not also an athlete!"

As spring training opens this year in Norteamerica, there's something else the big, bearded ex-sidearmer cannot conceive of. Three decades after he slammed the door, Cuban ballplayers are coming back to the Big Leagues.

Just ask 700,000 ecstatic Cuban-Americans in Miami and environs: Two weeks ago, the determined Florida Marlins front office won a tense bidding war among six teams for the services of Livian Hernandez, a twenty-year-old Cuban defector who throws a 95-mile-an-hour fastball. The right-hander was a star of the Cuban national team--the best amateur club on the planet, a club major-league observers generally agree could, in any season, send six to eight players directly into the American big leagues.

Last season, Hernandez was making $5 a month. On January 13, he got a record $2.5 million signing bonus from the Marlins--half a million more than the Dodgers paid Japan's Hideo Nomo--and a four-year guaranteed deal worth between $4.5 and $6 million.

Out in San Francisco, meanwhile, the arm-weary Giants have just signed Osvaldo Fernandez, another right-handed lanzador from Cuba, to a three-year contract worth more than $3 million, including a $1.1 million bonus. His big perk last season was a 24-year-old Russian automobile. In international competition, Fernandez is 22-0 with a 1.53 earned run average, and he beat Team USA in the semifinals of the 1992 Olympics. At 27, he has yet to see the lights of Union Square or the tricks wind can play in freakish Candlestick Park. But he's slated for the Giants' 1996 starting rotation.

Hernandez and Fernandez aren't the only Cubans to slip away: Two more pitchers, six-foot-five-inch, 20-year-old Vladimir Nunez, and Larry Rodriguez, 21, have just signed with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks, who will begin play in 1998. Shortstop Rey Ordonez is already in New York Mets pinstripes, Rene Arocha pitches for the St. Louis Cardinals, and Ariel Prieto throws for the Oakland Athletics.

This would never happen, the prime minister had said. Cuba, Si! Nueva York Yanquis, No!

As any conspiracy theorist at, oh, Wrigley Field might tell you, the two most disastrous effects of the Bay of Pigs fiasco on April 17, 1961, were the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Castro's swift edict prohibiting Cuban baseball players from leaving the island to play in the United States. Fidel meant what he said: In 1961, the year Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's home-run record, he banned professional sports, and the drain of Cuban stars to the capitalist snake pits of the north stopped. Some major-leaguers-to-be already were situated in the farm system, but the last contingent of Cuban players to reach the bigs included the great Cincinnati Reds first baseman Tony Perez (who played his first major-league game in 1964), Baltimore lefty Mike Cuellar (1959) and the mysterious pitcher Luis Tiant (1964), whose glances at heaven in mid-windup disconcerted American League batters so often that they never saw the dazzling junk that sent them back to the bench.

A cold war ensued. Although the quality and lore of the North American game still loomed large in the imaginations of Cuba's beisbol fanaticos-- great stars like Camilio Pascual and Minnie Minoso had already ensured that--for the next thirty years young players staunchly repeated the party line. I have no desire to leave revolutionary Cuba, the story went. I have no interest in the corrupt enticements of the major leagues. In 1980, baseball writer Thomas Boswell's brilliant piece, "How Baseball Helps the Harvest or What the Bay of Pigs Did to the Bigs" chronicled the entire syndrome to perfection--mixed emotions about gaining glory in Cleveland or Baltimore, the insistence among first-generation Communist first-basemen that everything was fine on the island.

"No Cuban baseball player," Boswell wrote, "has publicly said he has any interest in U.S. major league money in twenty years. On the contrary, Cuban stars spit out the word 'professionalism' like a curseE"

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