August 11, 2008

LET MY SHORTSTOP GO:

Commie Ball: A Journey to the End of a Revolution: Some of the greatest baseball players the world has never seen are in Cuba, where their talent is government property, and their only chance of turning pro is the risky boat ride to Florida. Gus Dominguez, an L.A. sports agent, has done more than anyone to help escaped players join major-league U.S. teams, but now he sits in a California jail, convicted of smuggling athletes. The author flies to Havana for an unprecedented scouting of the island’s stars as he reports on the twisted dynamics behind the Dominguez case. (Michael Lewis, July 2008, Vanity Fair)

Soon after he seized power, in January 1959, Fidel Castro banned professional sports from his island. The next year he tossed out the first pitch to open the Cuban amateur league and even took a few cuts with a bat. The ramrod-straight stance, plus the whiff of fourth-grade girl in the cock of his bat, should have dispelled the rumor that the Maximum Leader had once been a pro prospect, but the myth survived this brush with reality. (“Total bullshit,” says Ralph Avila, who is in charge of scouting in the Dominican Republic for the Los Angeles Dodgers and played ball in Havana during what was meant to have been Fidel’s prime. “Fidel never played any sport at university. He didn’t have time. In Havana there was a pitcher named Felix Castro. Fidel used his name to say that he played baseball.”)

For the next 30 years no Cuban ballplayer left. Then, on July 10, 1991, the Cuban national team, returning from a tournament, spent the night in the Miami airport hotel. A pitcher named René Arocha walked out of his room, found his way to his aunt’s Miami apartment, and never returned. From that moment, until the end of the 1990s, the most common route out of Cuba for a baseball player was to make the national team and then, when the team was abroad, walk away. Sneak out of the hotel late at night and run to the nearest blood relative you had in Miami.

The funny thing was, at least in the beginning, they had no idea of their market value. René Arocha, for one, never imagined he could play in the big leagues. “I didn’t leave Cuba because I wanted a baseball career,” Arocha says. “I didn’t think I was at the same level as the big-leaguers. I thought the quality of the major leagues was light-years ahead of me.” But then he got a call from a Cuban-American named Gus Dominguez, who explained how thrilled he was “that someone finally told Fidel to go and shove it,” and that “you are better than you know.” At the time, Dominguez still worked at his graphic-design firm, in Los Angeles, but happened to be in Miami on business. They arranged to meet. “If Gus hadn’t called, I don’t think I’d even have tried to play baseball,” recalls Arocha. “He took me to a big-league game. That’s when it dawned on me, Jesus, I think I can play with these guys.”

Arocha flew with Dominguez to California, where Dominguez planned to introduce him to Jose Canseco’s agent, whom Dominguez knew slightly. (Canseco, the famed Oakland Athletics slugger, came to this country from Cuba as an infant with his family.) The morning of the meeting, Canseco’s agent called and canceled. Dominguez had taken the call and tried to put a happy face on things, but Arocha demanded to know exactly what this big-time American agent had said: “We have someone more important to meet with.”

“O.K.,” Arocha recalls saying. “I’m not important to them. They’re not important to me. You be my agent.”

“I have no idea how to do it,” said Dominguez.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Arocha. “We’ll figure it out together. You’re the only one who has helped me so far.”

A year later René Arocha went 11–8 for the St. Louis Cardinals and found himself in the running for Rookie of the Year. “After a while,” says Arocha, “I’d look at all the players on the field and think, I have a friend back in Cuba who is as good or better than everyone who is here.”

That’s how Gus Dominguez had become a sports agent. He took an interest in these Cubans when no one else did, and so he became, by default, their guy. The players in Cuba learned of Arocha’s success—and saw the Cuban government’s decision not to punish his family—and thought, If he can do it, I can, too. In 1993, two years after Arocha defected, the Cuban national “B” team flew to Buffalo, New York, for the World University Games. Eddie Oropesa, a 21-year-old pitcher on his first trip abroad, sneaked out of the college dorm in which he was housed, but couldn’t find the cousin who was supposed to be waiting. Terrified, he wound up wandering around some graveyard in the dark. He ran back to his room and stared at the ceiling. The next morning, as the team warmed up, Oropesa handed his spikes to his good friend shortstop Rey Ordoñez, then dashed for the fence behind home plate. It was at least 12 feet high, but he went up and over in his stocking feet. “I didn’t know where my cousin was,” Oropesa recalls. “I just started climbing the fence. I heard Rey shouting, ‘Oropesa! Oropesa! Oropesa’s gone crazy!’ But I didn’t look back. When I hit the ground I just started running.” Newly liberated, he heard Gus Dominguez was the man to see. “I wanted to leave not because I thought I could play baseball,” says Oropesa, “but because I didn’t want my son to go through the experience that I had. And the only way for him to get out was for me to get out first.” (Dominguez helped Oropesa extract his wife and son from Cuba three years later.) [...]

ike everyone else in Cuba, baseball players earn far less than a human being can survive on. And like every other Cuban, to cover the difference between what they need to live on and what they are paid by their government jobs, the players turn to the black market. Playing baseball is just the loss leader that gets them into their actual trade: retailer of stolen baseball merchandise. Before he fled on a boat and into the arms of Gus Dominguez, for instance, Industriales pitcher Yoankis Turino pilfered baseballs, forged the autographs of his teammates on them, and flogged them to tourists for $5 a pop. A player’s labor may belong to the state, but his jersey, at the end of the season, is his to keep: after the two seasons he played with Industriales, Osbek Castillo sold his for $30. The jersey of a lesser player on a bad team might fetch as little as $5, but that of a big star might sell for $50. The jersey for a national-team member is worth twice the jersey of a Cuban Series team, and a jersey sold outside of Cuba goes for multiples of a jersey inside Cuba. In the last World Cup, a pitcher with a 95-m.p.h. fastball, named Pedro Luis Lazo, was caught by a Cuban-government official in the lobby of his Taipei hotel selling his uniform to a Taiwanese businessman for $217.

All this goes on with the more or less full knowledge of the authorities, who use that knowledge to instill fear in the players. The 2006 Cuban batting title was won by a 27-year-old named Michel Enríquez. This year he’s not on any roster, and word is that he’s been suspended. No one knows why—no one ever knows why. But it’s a fair bet that he got caught selling something on the open market that he shouldn’t have—probably his baseball talent.

At any rate, the ruling idea in Cuban baseball is that the players are not only amateurs but interchangeable. Stars are unimportant; team is everything. But there’s nothing like a baseball field to remind you that all men are not created equal.


Prosecuting Mr. Dominguez was the crime.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 11, 2008 10:01 AM
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