Castro's Curveball
by Tim Wendel
Ballentine, 1999

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 matters.

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 taking curveball.

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 doeskin glove.

I recommend this one highly.

--Pure Bull, September 13, 1999