Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Good Day For Cuba

(Having not written about baseball for some time, I thought that my return to the land of baseball blogging should encompass as many of my favorite things as possible, and here I believe I have managed to successfully combine three of my favorite pursuits: baseball, alternate history, and Communist overthrows of repressive fascist governments that result in equally dictatorial Communist regimes. This story was inspired by my brother, who hates baseball, but enjoys the other two enough to make up for it.)

The pitcher was tall and lanky, but with strong hindquarters of the type that typically prompted crinkle-eyed scouts to declare with clinical detachment that he was well built where it counted. Baseball scouts have their own language for discussing prospects, and when they believe they are speaking only to their own kind they invent words and phrases with sufficient frequency to send a prescriptivist linguist to the showers with, as the scouts would say, an “Indian Sign” (a bad game) hung about his shoulders.

When discussing this particular pitcher, the last semi-prospect they were observing that day, their praise was reserved solely for his curveball, which the oldest scout amongst the half dozen sitting behind home plate described as a great “out-curve hook.” The rest of the scouts nodded and harrumphed their approval with this diagnosis, though one younger fellow wearing a Washington Senators cap dared to venture that it could be considered a “dropball” instead. The scouts paused their discussion for a moment to scrutinize the windmill motion of the young man on the mound. As the ball cracked into the catcher’s glove they let out a universal grunt of disagreement: it was certainly not a dropball, the old scout had it right from the beginning, it was an out-curve hook.

The younger scout felt suitably chastened, but his discomfort was nothing as compared to that of the young law student on the mound, who had taken the day off from his normal daily activities: studying and general rabblerousing, to throw for these strange men. The pitcher knew his curveball was his great strength, but the indeterminate murmurs from the bench did not sound agreeable, and in his nervous state he was incapable of assuming that their displeasure was directed at anything other than his performance. Brushing sweat from his elegantly pointed chin beard, which was now wilting in the heat, the pitcher flashed a signal to his catcher: fastballs from now on.

In scouting parlance, the hopeful young pitcher would be referred to as throwing a “smoke ball” or a “hot rock.” Either term a solemn compliment if offered by the stingy scouting chorus. Yet, despite his ability to “put over a fast one,” the young man had failed to attract the attention of the coach of his college’s varsity baseball team. This failure perhaps had something to do with, as the scouts would say, his “inability to put anything over the plate aside from a knife and fork.” Yet the young man, unsurprisingly, had never considered his wildness to be the reason for his lack of success at garnering professional attention. On the contrary, he believed his propensity for forcing batters to give up their “toe-holds” in the batter’s box with a creatively located “duster” to be a commendable skill.

The true reason he had garnered little scouting attention seemed clear to him: the old men with their big bonus checks had blackballed him because of his activism against the tyranny of the local government. He was wrong of course, coaches and scouts had avoided the young Fidel Castro because of what they would have called his “scatter arm,” and not his scatter brained politics.

Conspiratorial fears can be powerful drivers of performance for some, and massive distractions for others. For the former, the fear that you will lose your chance because of what you see as an extraneous factor can focus the senses and sharpen muscle control… what dramatically minded people would describe as channeling one's emotions into one’s art. It can also spring sweat from pores you did not even know existed, sweat of shame, anger, and defiance. And the ball will slip from your fingers just a hair too early and too late, and the scouts will leave, and your conspiracy theory will be reinforced.

Neither of these psychological ailments, for even the former should be considered an ailment, affected the young Fidel Castro in these moments on the mound. Fidel believed, more than believed, he knew that his politics, not his performance, had kept him from the collegiate team. And knowing that his performance was unquestionable, and that his politics would prove right in the end, his fastball crept up.


And then, without Fidel even noticing the difference, it leaped…

92 (he slipped a bit on the uneven dirt)

The scouts were silent, and this time Fidel misinterpreted their lack of discussion as a bad sign, and so he called for his curveball. One curveball, thrown with anger and frustration and confidence, and even more powerfully, thrown with complete detachment. Fidel hadn’t a clue how well he was throwing, because in all his bullpen sessions before, his mediocre deliveries and fastballs in the dirt had appeared to him precisely as sublime as the pitching clinic he was now putting on in front of a half-dozen enraptured scouts.

The curveball dropped through the bottom half of the strike zone at 69 miles per hour, and the release of breath from the dugout was audible.

The oldest scout on the bench, who a not particularly careful observer would have described as wizened, but who was in fact merely shrunken by years of exposure to the Caribbean sun, yet had gained no particularly deep insights from the tanning process, strode to the mound. Fidel mopped his brow with a tired theatricality that had become such an ingrained part of his personality that his friends had ceased to even remark upon its ridiculousness.

The scout spoke briefly, “you can pitch. You’ll hear our offers here, tomorrow at five.”

Fidel could only nod, he did not want to speak, and thereby reveal with his suddenly squeaky voice how excited he was. He remained standing on the mound long after the scouts, his catcher, and the sole groundskeeper, whose job it was to rake the dirt into a semblance of a field, had departed. It was only when his muscles began to stiffen that he remembered: the next day at six o’clock was a rally, a big one. He had been planning to attend for months. In the formidable afterglow of the grudging approval of the American scouts he had completely forgotten about it, and now, with a future in the big leagues and a big signing bonus within sight at five, the rally at six somehow seemed far less important, the issues he championed far more abstract.

Fidel Castro tucked his old hand-me-down glove in his armpit, and absentmindedly pulled a cigar from his back pocket. It had been somewhat crushed during his exertions, but his practiced fingers squeezed it back into a semblance of its proper shape. Those same fingers dipped into his pockets in search of a match, but came up empty. Pausing thoughtfully a moment, he abandoned his increasingly futile search for a light and tossed the cigar gently towards home plate. They were bad for the lungs after all, and a professional athlete needed to be in the best shape possible, he was done with cigars. The cigar fluttered to a landing short of the sixty feet and six inch distance he stood from the plate, but the young pitcher, for that’s what he was now, had already forgotten it, and was thinking ahead to the contract negotiations the following day, he had always been a good negotiator, and now he was fighting for his future!

The scouts had carpooled, as their per diems were not so generous as to be able to pay for both margaritas and gasoline in the amount required, yes required, by their job. The youngest scout rode in the back of the oldest car, listening intently to the thoughtful silence of the elders in the front seats, attempting to glean some insight from their every exhalation.

Finally one spoke, though his pauses to spit tobacco juice rendered his remarks far more dramatic than they needed to be: “that Castro kid… really had something on that ball… he’s going to… make it big.”

“And if he does others will follow,” interjected the young scout into the chorus of solemn nods, “he could inspire a whole generation of Cubans to take up bats and gloves and join the game!”

The young scout’s traveling partners responded with irritated silence, but his enthusiasm was not to be dampened.

“This,” he declared with the sense of self importance that those who think they are influencing an important moment in history inevitably acquire, “is a good day for Cuba.”

Castro on the mound, courtesy of:

Historical Note: While he was, and remains, a huge baseball fan, Castro almost certainly was not good enough to play for a Major League team, rumors that he took part in tryouts for the New York Yankees and Washington Senators are just that and nothing more. However, as a law student, he and a group of rabble rousers did commandeer a Cuban Summer League pitchers mound in the middle of a game, and Castro himself threw several exceedingly wild pitches to Major Leaguer Don Hoak before park police escorted him off the field. Historical reality aside, a world in which Castro signed with the Senators and pitched the United States’ most inherently patriotic team to a winning season (as the old saying goes, “Washington: first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League”), is certainly a fun one to contemplate.

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