by Tim Wendel
Item 1. Sometimes it can take
an awfully long time for us to learn things.
Item 2. Sometimes we think we learn
things, only to find out later that what we
thought we'd learned was all wrong. In that case,
refer to item number one.
Whether we have a perfect
understanding of things or not, life marches
steadfastly onward. People marry, children are
born, careers are advanced, friends and relatives
die, and the past becomes more distant and
tenuous with each passing day.
We can literally live our entire lives in
ignorace, not realizing what opportunities we've
missed, how we've hurt or betrayed the faith of
people we've cared about, how we've failed to
live up to obligations we would have gladly
fulfilled if only we'd known about them.
And then we die, with a tangle of
loose ends left over after we're gone.
Screwing everything up and dying in ignorance of how
badly you've done doesn't sound much like the type of
behavior the protagonist of a novel should exhibit, and
indeed, Tim Wendel does the authorly thing and gives us a
lead character who is forced to confront his past,
tidying up as many loose ends as he's able to before the
story draws to a close. And what a fine, bittersweet
story it is that Mr Wendel has to tell.
Let us begin at the beginning, then:
When Castro's Curveball opens, Billy Bryan is a
70 year old man whose wife has recently died.
As survivors are wont to do after a death, his daughter
begins to go through some boxes that have been put into
storage, and comes across a scrapbook detailing Billy's
time spent playing Winter League ball in Cuba in the late
forties. This is a chapter of his life that he'd never
spoken to her about, and her curiosity is aroused.
One photograph in particular catches her attention, and
Billy mentions that the young lady who'd taken that shot
had been a friend of his at that time, and that she'd had
real talent as a photographer.
His daughter subsequently begins to write letters of
inquiry to various places in Cuba, searching for more
information about this photographer, this Malena Fonseca.
Billy is shocked when this burst of corrospondance pays
off. A woman named Evangalina Fonseca writes back to his
daughter, sending her cheaply made picture books of her
mother's work, and intimates in accompanying letters that
Billy and her mother had been much more than just
friends, and that Billy had unfinished business in Cuba.
Even at this late date, it would be in his best interest
to return to the island nation and attend to certain
Reluctantly, at his daughter's urging, Billy agrees to
return to Cuba and meet with Evangelina to discover just
what this unfinished business might be. Even more
reluctantly, he agrees to allow his daughter to accompany
him, and to share with her the story of the last season
he'd spent as a Washington Senator farmhand assigned to a
Cuban team for the winter months.
What follows is a very human, very believable story that
involves a look at both the colorful and exciting life
available to a not-very-successful American baseball
player in Cuba during the last days of the Batista
regime, when Havana was the party capital of the Western
Hemisphere, as well as illuminating the idealism and the
confusion and danger involved in participating in the
student-led call for revolution against Cuba's long
standing dictatorship, when Havana was also the epicenter
of civil unrest for much of the Caribbean basin.
The baseball side is self explanatory, in that Billy is a
catcher who's had a few cups of coffee with the Senators
without having any success to speak of at the big league
level, a never-was who spends his winters in Cuba
assigned to one of the four teams playing playing a 70
game schedule in the Winter League. He's reached an age
at which the Senators are just as likely to let him go as
they are to continue investing in his ball playing
ability, so having success on the field in the winter is
extremely important to his future with the organization.
This is the center of his life, and all else fails to
hold his interest.
It is a crucial time for him, serious decisions have to
be made, decisions that he'd really rather not think
about as they detract from his over-riding
obsession--being able to continue his playing career: the
girl he leaves behind each winter is getting tired of
waiting for him, the organization he belongs to really
doesn't have a use for him at a higher level and can
probably do without him at the level he's occupying,
there's a chance to change career tracks and move from an
active role into scouting or coaching but of course, that
would mean an end to his days on the field.
And, just at this, the probable turning-point in his
personal and professional life, rather than finding his
solace and salvation in the game he's devoted so much of
his life to, he finds himself drawn into the local
political scene thru a chance encounter with a mercurial
student leader named Fidel Castro. That meeting
subsequently brings about an involvement with the
patriotic young Cuban photographer who does so much to
help establish Fidel as a force in the region's
revolutionary movement, Malena Fonseca. Through his
association with her, he is drawn more deeply into the
burgeoning revolution, and many of his preconceived
notions about life and honor, even his own conception of
himself, are brought into question.
The initial meeting between Bryan and Castro takes place
when university students disrupt a game, a common enough
occurance during those days. However, for reasons
inexplicable even to himself, Bryan takes opportunity of
this demonstration to challenge one of the
student-protestors to take the mound and throw a few
pitches. When the young man who seems to be the leader of
this particular demonstration rises to the bait, Billy
takes his place behind the plate and one of the young
prospects on the opposing team steps in to hit, meaning
to show the students a thing or two for daring to
interrupt yet another game with one of their
never-ending, futile demonstrations.
And, in the course of four pitches, the student leader
Castro proceeds to strike the brash power-hitting
prospect out, making him look foolish with a breath
From there, Wendel attempts to supply an answer to a
series of legendary questions: Just how good a baseball
player was Fidel Castro? How serious was he about the
game? Was he ever offered the opportunity to sign a major
league contract? If so, what happened to it?
Such a contract has never been found, and Castro himself
says he never signed one.
But the legends persist.
And the resulting story as presented by Wendel is both
interesting and plausible, if not quite probable.
While weaving the intriguing tale about Castro and
baseball, Wendel carefully intermingles an equally
intriguing love story between the American baseball
player and the Cuban photographer, Malena, while also
giving the reader glimpses into politics --baseball,
interpersonal, and governmental. He captures the flavor
of the period and the place quite effectively, and I have
to admit that I had a hard time putting the book down
once I'd gotten a few pages into it.
Sometimes, we think we learn things, only to find out
later that what we thought we'd learned was all wrong.
And the regrets we carry are not as burdensome as the
regrets we discover, when we finally learn the truth.
Re-reading this review, I'm sure that the astute reader
will feel comfortable in guessing that the unfinished
business relates to Evangelina and her mother. However,
paternity is the least of the issues that Billy Bryan
must come to terms with in the course of this fine novel.
Bittersweet is a term I find rare occasion to use, but
it's one that fits this story like a well-broken in
I recommend this one highly.
--Pure Bull, September 13, 1999