Sample text for Castro's curveball / Tim Wendel.

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Counter Prologue

We are up above the clouds--safe for now. Even through the plane's window, the Caribbean sun feels as hot and dream inducing as I remember it.

Besides me, my daughter Cassy sleeps the sleep of the innocent and the stubborn. With my fingertips, I slowly bring her head, with its fine blond hair, to rest on my shoulder. Softly, so as not to wake her, I stroke her neck just as I'd done when she was a child. I listen to the roar of the jet engines, feel this southern sun again on my face for the first time in many years, and wonder what we have gotten ourselves into.

Cassy has her mother's round face and my sharp nose. Some would say that she would have been better off with a little less of each, but I don't think that. When she was seven or so, I can remember walking the fields out in back of our house and talking to God about her, wishing her plain. Please, let her be a plain girl, a plain Jane. I was convinced only that would keep her safe in this world. For I know that the pretty and the beautiful, those talented and the gifted, the ones made closest to His image, always end up getting hurt. Of that you can be sure.

As with most conversations I've ever had with God, the results weren't exactly as I'd hoped for. In terms of her looks, my daughter didn't turn out to be classically beautiful. But there's something about her smile, the way her gray-blue eyes sparkle, that people, especially boys, always seem to enjoy. Even I am not immune to being carried aloft by her enthusiasm. After all, she is the one who has led me back to Cuba after all these years.

My Cassy flies all the time. She is the lone flight attendant on a commuter airline making hops from Buffalo to Cincinnati or Washington or Boston. She makes at least four round trips a day, five days a week. That's why she got such a kick out of how they do things on this Cubana Air flight. No drinks or snacks. Instead candies--peppermint, butterscotch, mango--are offered up in straw baskets to keep our ears from popping. There are no other services on this ninety-minute flight from Cancún to Havana.

Cassy's breathing is soft and relaxed. I turn from her to look out the window. Far below, in between the clouds, I catch my first glimpse of Cuba in more than forty years. It's how I remember it--a ribbon of white sand beach and then mile after mile of dark-green interior. After all the times I meant to come back here, especially that night in '53, it seems strange to come back now, with a grown daughter in tow. If it wasn't for Cassy, I would have stayed in Middleport, NY, living on my high school teacher's pension, learning to be a widower after thirty-seven years of marriage. I am coming to the end of many things, and, quite simply, I want to be left alone.

My wife, Laurie, died nine weeks ago this Tuesday. I especially miss her on cold mornings and late at night when every sound, real or imagined, echoes through the empty farmhouse on Slayton Settlement Road that we filled with devotion and purpose for all those years.

It's funny. Once upon a time I thought that I would be enjoy being alone again. Staying married, learning to overlook the small trespasses that mount over the years, can exhaust anyone. A man can be married to a veritable saint, as I believe I was, and yet he can still find himself walking the fields in back of his house, wondering where he will find the strength to hold himself, hold the marriage together. That's what being married does to you. It demands penance in the form of compromise and responsibility. When your living it, it can all seem to be too much at times. But now I find myself trying to make sense of a different kind of pain.

Here again, I think that God has fed me a little off speed pitch to keep me off balance. He has taught me that missing someone you loved deeply makes you long for the days of making adjustments, enduring the rounds of petty disagreements than can dim any marriage. Though she is gone, my wife remains, as she always did, very much with me. As I sit here, suspended above an island that once held such promise for me, I don't feel worthy of such devotion.

I feel this and simply want to fade away; try and wrestle thos feelings to some kind of stalemate. That's what I had planned to do until Cassy found that damn scrapbook.

Leave it to my whirling dervish of a daughter to take it upon herself to clean my house, attic to basement, days after her mother's death. I had told her nothing of Cuba, the years I spent playing baseball there. It was her mother, even through she had every reason to want to forget those years I spent in Cuba, who put those scrapbooks together, kept them tucked away where I couldn't get at them. It was only when she lay in a foggy shroud of pain killers near the end that she mentioned Cuba again, told me how proud she would have been if she could have seen me that last year. All I could do was squeeze her hand, a whispered thank you barely able to tear its way past my constricted throat.

After the discovery of the scrapbook, one thing led to another. Cassy especially liked a photo she found from those times of a farm boy struggling to lead a pack of plow horses. She had it framed and after I reluctantly told her who took it, she wrote repeatedly to Cuba, eager to locate more of this photographer's work. To my amazement, her efforts were rewarded.

        First came the letters, with stamps of orange-tipped butterflies and old generals. In a neat script, the photographer's daughter, Eván Fonseca, told a fantastic tale. One in which her mother, Malena Fonseca, and I were companions in that time before the revolution. She told my daughter that we should visit. How there were plenty of Americans down here. How she met them every day on the streets.

        To further convince us, she sent cheaply made books of her mother's works. Published in Spain and Mexico, they were filled with black-and-white photographs of Cuba before the revolution. Then came the volume simply entitled "Fidel." In flipping through the shots of the Cuban president, my Cassy came to a picture of me and my best friend at the time, Chuck Cochrane, and, standing between us, a boyish Fidel Castro. Yes, that Fidel Castro.

        He was so skinny back then. No bushy beard. Just a wisp of a beard that I remember he had only started to grow. At times he was so self-conscious and unsure of himself that he constantly covered his upper lip with his hands, looking more like a blushing teenager. Other times he was as brash as a school yard bully.

        In the photograph, all of us were smiling like fools in the bright mid-day sun. The caption said the picture was taken in 1947.

        Our plane banks and we begin our descent into Havana. Americans aren't legally permitted to enter Cuba. Back in Cancun, we had bribed who we hoped were the right people. We had been told repeatedly what to say, how to act, when we reached customs in Cuba. Sitting by the side of Mexicana Hilton pool, a gentle breeze sweeping in from the gulf, it had seemed so easy. But now, as I look again at my precious daughter, I worry that this trip will bring us only heartbreak and sorrow. When you're as old as I am, you can sense trouble coming from a long ways off. It is another curse of growing old. Often you can see the future, but nobody ever heeds your warnings.

        Around my neck, tucked inside my shirt, hangs a pouch with one thousand dollars in it. Another thousand dollars, also in small bills, is in my money belt, with the final thousand underneath Cassy's left armpit, riding in a shoulder holster contraption.

        Because Americans cannot draw on U.S. banks in Cuba, we won't be able to use credit cards or traveler's checks there. We plan on paying cash for everything.

        My daughter awakens and smiles at me.

        "You said you would tell me more about Cuba on flight," Cassy says, yawning.

        "But you fell asleep."

        "I'm awake now."

        She leans forward, looking past me out the window. "So that's Havana?" Cassy turns back to me, her eyes doing that sparkler thing they do, and I see the two of them in the kitchen, sitting knee to knee in chairs facing one another, their heads tilted forward, sharing some revelation or another. I should have pulled up a seat and joined them, but I chose the company of my regrets instead.

        I can't hold her gaze, so I turn toward the window and the skyscrapers and the patchwork of neighborhoods hugging the sea.

        "Yes. That's it."
        "Is it like you remember it?"

        "Who can tell from here, hon? Memories fade, places change."

        "Tell me about what it was like back then," she says, refusing to let me mire myself in gloom.

        "We're almost on the ground."

        "C'mon, Dad. We've got plenty of time."

        "Where to start?" I say, trying again to beg off. "It was so long ago."

        "Start at the beginning," Cassy tells me, refusing to let it drop.

        "All right then," say I, Billy Bryan, who was once the starting catcher for the Havana Lions, personal pitching coach to Fidel Castro and lover of the beautiful Malena Fonseca. "Somewhere near the beginning then."


My first mistake in Havana was trying to score from second base on Sammy Dion's weak single to right field. I ran right through Willie Gomez's stop sign at third, past his raised arms, his shouts for me to halt. I'll admit it--I was only thinking of the celebration at home plate. The hugs and the affectionate thumps on the head I would receive from my teammates. How the crowd would have cheered, their noise swelling into one delirious roar of joy, as I crossed with the winning run.

In my own mind, I had already won the game, was ready to take my place as the hero.

Instead,I was out by four steps.

Louie Lacomb, my opposite number with Marianao, was waiting with the ball in his mitt, his free hand protecting it, so I couldn't have knocked the pill loose even with my best Ty Cobb slide. But that stupid grin on Lacomb's face, as he stood there waiting for me, made me come in with spikes high just on general principle.

There was only one out when I was gunned down at the plate. And when Cochrane, never passing up a chance to turn the knife, singled down the left-field line, I knew I was going to hear it if we didn't score. When we couldn't bring Dion around, the chants started, as I knew they would: "Bo -- lo, Bo -- lo, Bo -- lo."            

With the game already four hours old and spinning into the 14th inning, what remained of the sellout crowd at Gran Estadio de la Havana needed somebody to blame. And seeing how I had been out at the plate, the last great screw-up, I was the scapegoat. I was now the Bo -- lo of the moment. Traditionally when the real Bolo left for the night, anybody who failed to score took his place.

You see, the real Bolo was our team mascot. He prowled the stands wearing only frayed shorts and sandals, banging a small drum in time with the rumba band and chasing after the fire-eater with small cups of water. With his snarled, snake-like hair and wild-eyed look, Bolo wasn't the kind of Cuban we socialized with. But you had to give him credit. Nobody could whip a crowd into a frenzy better than our Bolo.

He had already done his classic tricks for the night. My favorite being when he stood atop our dugout and wedged two baseballs into his mouth, looking like a deranged gopher, and then led the fans in booing and jeering the opposition. During the seventh-inning stretch, Bolo had come out of the stands, waving our team banner in one hand, and chugged around the bases. Rounding third, he had handed the red-and-white striped streamer to Willie Gomez, our dim-witted third-base coach, and then rumbled toward home plate. There the amazing Bolo had belly-flopped across the lid to loud groans and laughter.    

Bolo was long gone by this hour -- down in Vedado, the new western section of Havana, where gleaming skyscrapers stood a few blocks from a silk-warm sea. That was where the rest of us wanted to be, too. Except we would be in the casinos, rolling dice or playing blackjack, or watching the nightly shows at the Capri or the Lodi, with the fabulous house bands that could pump and massage a melody until dawn, and Bolo would be out front, begging for change from American tourists.     "Bolo, Bolo, Bolo," the remaining fans shouted, many of them standing.  As I strapped on my shin pads, I could hear them pounding on the roof of the dugout, waiting for me to come out. I wasn't in any hurry.

Broken fingers, balls ricocheting off your cup, pitchers who can't think straight, your legs so cramped you can't score from second base anymore are only a few of the occupational hazards of being a catcher. So, the crowd I could take. In a minute or so, after a couple of pitches, they would cool off. What got my goat was having my own teammates, especially Chuck Cochrane, our first baseman, give me the business, too.

"Hey Bolo, I mean Bryan, get out here," Cochrane shouted over his shoulder at me. He was snagging throws from the infielders. It was a warmup drill he performed effortlessly, with a bemused look on his face. For a big man, six-foot-three, easily 250 pounds, he moved like a cat when he had a leather baseball glove on his right hand. Like all of us, he still loved this game. We bitched about it, especially when a contest like this one kept barreling into the night like a car with a drunk behind the wheel. But come tomorrow, steer us between the lines and we would be happy, even with a hangover.

Out on the field, an out was always an out. That may not sound like much, but compared with the rest of the world -- the lousy shape the war left it in -- well, that's saying something. I've come to know that the whole world is full of lies. I believe that, too. So, it all comes down to what lie you choose to follow. Long ago, I chose baseball.

That's how this thirty-one year old baseball lifer found himself in Cuba playing winterball, after nearly a dozen years of trying and failing to win a full-time job at the major league level.

Maybe it's a good thing, at least when you're young, to be desperate for something. So desperate that you will give up anything, go anywhere to chase it. Even though you tell yourself not to get too wrapped up in it all, somehow you still do. Just because you've put so much effort into this doesn't mean it will work out. That's what your head tells you. That's what it's supposed to tell you. But, of course, your heart has other plans. No matter which I used, I believed that the world should have behaved logically. That if I paid my dues, I would be rewarded--some day.        

So there I was playing baseball on this oppressively humid night in Havana--weighed down by a sweat-drenched wool uniform and fading dreams. But I still believed that this world of mine held a place for me; what I did not realize was that another world was about ready to reel me in.


"Billy, get out here. I mean it," Cochrane said, serious this time. "Get a move on, they're coming."  

         I glanced at the outfield bleachers. Sure enough, the kids's banners were up. A round of firecrackers went off, announcing their charge. This game seemed doomed to take all night.     "C'mon, c'mon," Cochrane said, his mitt popping with another warmup throw. "If we get this inning started, maybe they'll crawl back in their cages."

"I'm coming," I said, clicking the last strap in place. I tapped at the shin pads with an open palm, making sure both of them were snug against my legs.

The crowd whistled and hooted once I cleared the dugout's shadow. I kept my eyes on my feet.

Tyga, the clubhouse kid, a mulatto Cuban, was catching Happy Nelson, a Negro with a nice fastball and nothing else. He'd come in to pitch the new inning. There was nobody else in the bullpen, except Skipper Charles, who was scheduled to start tomorrow's game. That's how desperate we were.

   I motioned to Tyga that I was ready and he got up from behind the plate.

"Mil gracis," I said as he handed me my glove. But like everybody I've ever met in baseball, he couldn't resist a smart-ass remark.

He smiled those pearly whites at me. "How about a few less thanks and a little more speed."

I ignored him, pounding the mitt's pocket with my bare right hand, trying to rid myself of any sense of him. If I could score from second on a bloop hit like Dion's would I be here in the off season, trying to survive as a ballplayer? But try explaining that to an unruly bunch who wants your head.     Back in the dugout, Gomez was getting an earful from Angel Gonzalez, our manager. About how I wasn't fast. What catcher was? That's why this position was created in the first place. It's for smart guys who have a good arm, who talk a good game, who like to be in the center of it all. It's a great job -- God's view of baseball, with everything set out there in front of you. An ideal  way to make a living, if it wasn't for all the idiots surrounding you.

I had just caught Nelson's last warmup toss when Cochrane yelled, "Too late. Here they come."

The umpire, old Raul Atan, was ready to settle in behind me to call balls and strikes. When he saw the kids sweeping out of the stands, he stood up and strutted toward the backstop for a smoke.

   "Tu puedes hacer algo," I told him in Spanish. "Do something."

    Atan shrugged. He wasn't any taller than five-foot-two. A little general, he hated being told what to do. Delays didn't bother Atan. He was always eager to share another dirty joke with the rich folks left in the boxseats. Baseball had no clock and he loved it.

    He sauntered back toward the open area between our dugout and the backstop. He gestured at a fat, red-faced guy in a polo shirt, who was puffing happily on a cigar. Next to him was a nice babe in a yellow summer dress. The American smiled, waving Atan over like they were bosom buddies -- the way most tourists treat the natives down here. Old Atan leaned against the rail, jawing away, in perfect position to check out the lady's endowments.

The demonstrators were out of the stands, heading toward the infield.

"There goes Virtue Street," Cochrane moaned.

"It's Virtudes Street," I replied.

"Virtue, Virtudes, who cares?" Cochrane laughed. "Billy, you know too much espanol for your own good, you know it? All I know is turn out the lights. That's English for the party's over."    Trying to get a dig back at him, I replied, "The ladies of the night will wait up for you."

They'll be too tired," he complained, tugging at his groin. "Too spent for my mucho action."

I stood up, the mask resting on top of my head. The protesters were students from the University of Havana. A rag-tag bunch, they unfurled banners that denounced Grio, the country's president, as well as United Fruit. There were about two hundred of them -- big shots trying to steal a scene right here on our shimmering green field, with the golden city laying in the distance. They looked far more interested in having a good time than in bringing down any government.

Cochrane and my teammates headed for the dugout, content to let this storm blow over.

"If Bryan had held up at third," I heard Nelson saying.

That's right, if I could only get lucky playing this game, we would be getting ready for a night on the town by now--hobnobbing with the wealthy and the famous, being treated like kings and heroes. In short, we would lapping up another glorious night in a town we owned, a reward we deserved after riding so many buses in the bush leagues.

"Billy, Billy, let's go sit down," our leftfielder Oscar Artemino teased me, running in from the outfield. "I think your legs need the rest."

        "Not you, too," I grumbled.

        Oscar's coffee-brown face broke into into a wide grin.

        "What's a few insults between friends?" he asked.

        "That's right. What the hell. Kick me while I'm down.

        I always loved the Oscar's lilting accent, the way his Spanish could float and tease, taking the sting out anything he said. My first year down here, Cochrane and I had roomed with Oscar, one of three Cubans who were in our everyday lineup. Our apartments weren't ready yet and staying with Oscar was management's idea. Chuck had lasted only a few nights before blowing his cash on a suite at the Nacional. But I had stayed at Oscar's for almost a month.

        His family was sweet. I paid only a few dollars for the room, so I slipped him pocket change whenever he taught me a phrase or two that I liked. The result was that while I knew some Spanish coming down here, after being with Oscar, being on this team for more seasons than I cared to remember, I was damn near fluent.

        "So, Billy, we sitting down?" Oscar asked. "You know this game could take all night."

        "You go ahead." I told him "You need your wheels more than me. Besides I'm not taking off these pads after I just got them off.

        Oscar gave me a curious look.

        "Go on," I told him. "I'm sticking around. Something's in the wind tonight."

        Rory Guild, a big rookie with good power and forearms like hams, also lingered near the plate. He was the first hitter due up that inning for Marianao, the once mighty Gray Monks. He hadn't been in Cuba long enough to know that such interruptions could go on for an hour or more. He didn't know he should head for the dugout and relax.

Catching my eye, he asked, "They do this every night?     I shook my head. "Only on full moons, when the price of sugar falls, or the government jails another of their brethren."

        Guild nodded dumbly. "Oh," he said.

I also stuck around, hoping things might burn themselves out quick enough. It didn't appear likely.

Many of the demonstrators beat small drums or shining cymbals or cowbells. They stretched in a snake line from first base around to third, swaying back and forth, proud of their own self-importance, singing something like, "Die, die, die. Grio must die."

Then they easily moved on to another catchy number, with the same relentless beat, a noise that gave anybody over the age of thirty a headache. This chant was about Batista, the old president of Cuba. What a devil he was, their protest song went. He had raped their land and if he returned to Havana blood would flow until justice was done. Real cheery stuff.

What was so strange about these interruptions was from a distance the demonstrators seemed like nice enough kids. They dressed pretty well. Their parents were obviously well off. The protesters's faces had that youthful shine, a refreshing eagerness that was open to anything that could possibly happen. Most nights they crowded the bleachers down the right- and left-field lines, helping to fill this glorious bowl of a ballpark. Beyond their sections, in the distance, one could see the skyscrapers and hotels stood sentinel. At night much of Havana came alive  pulsating in red, white and pink neon. Those lights, that energy, never shut down. The show went on until dawn, every night of the week in Cuba.

The demonstrators may have wanted to change all that -- bring down the government, do God knows what with the casinos and the clubs. But whether they wanted to admit it or not, they fit right into the madness that was this place. They were as much a part of this Cuba as the floor show at the Capri Hotel or the surf along the Malecon. Down deep, I got the feeling they knew this. They cheered the good plays and were as ready as the rest to ride somebody about being Bolo. Like many things in this country, their conduct didn't make sense on some basic level.

While most of them sang away, a smaller group of students surrounded the pitching mound and clapped rhythmically while an  hombre with a muscular upper torso and match-stick legs started pawing the pitching rubber. He was a bit overweight, with thick, black-framed glasses. He wore dark slipper-like shoes, a white dress shirt with ruffles and frills coming untucked from his black pants. He looked like a combination of a maitre d' and a matador. The guy went into an elaborate windup; windmilling his arm around and around before pretending to let one fly toward the plate. The motion was ridiculous. Still, after each effort he marched in place and his nest of admirers cooed and whistled. It was enough to make you sick.

After he had done this a couple times, I'd had enough. I rolled the ball out to the mound and motioned for him to throw it into me. "No comas mierda, lanza de verdad," I shouted out to him. "Don't pretend, pitch the ball for real."

I could hear Oscar laughing back in the dugout.

The kid stared at the ball, lying at his feet. "Let's see what you've got, big shot," I thought. He stared at the ball at his feet. I figured he was chicken. But with the crowd beginning to buzz, he reached down and picked up the ball and studied it like he had stumbled across the Hope diamond.

I got down into my crouch and he looked from the ball to me and back to the ball. His face became serious and angry, and the way he glared in at me I got a bit concerned, wondering what he might do next.

He waved his fan club back a couple steps and then went into his delivery for real. Now this windup resembled something right out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon -- plenty of grimacing, with his arm pinwheeling away. Yet when he let the ball go, he had something on it. When the ball hit leather, there was a reassuring pop. His admirers cheered and the crowd got a little interested.

The demonstrator threw a couple more before Guild surprisingly stepped into the batter's box.
"Let me take care of this knucklehead," he muttered. "The way you're going, they'll crown him king by morning."

The crowd was on its feet. At least they'd forgotten about me being Bolo.

The demonstrators moved to either side of the foul line and Atan, welcoming a big show, slowly walked up behind me to call balls and strikes once again. In my dugout, talk about the newest act at the Shanghai Theater died down and they began to watch, too.

From my crouch, I signaled one finger, wanting a fastball, but I was ready for anything. The kid went into his whole act, letting his arm go around a half-dozen times, before he lifted his left leg, rotated his hips and followed through toward home plate.

This pitch was his fastest yet, and Guild was lucky to pop it foul, off into the right-field stands.

"Screw that," Guild said underneath his breath.

It was if my man heard him because his next pitch came in high and hard, aimed at Guild's head. It was a fine piece of chin music, and Guild barely spun out of the way, dropping to one knee, the crowd gasping with delight.

"Brass-balled mother," Guild said, digging back into the batter's box. "That's it, Bryan. I'm taking your amigo over the fence."

I signaled for the fastball again and set up inside. But the pitch caught too much of the plate and Guild almost made him pay, pulling the ball hard, barely foul, deep over the left-field fence. The protesters scattered like somebody had fired a gun at them.

"Strike two," Raul shouted as the crowd roared.

"When did you wake up?" I muttered.           "This is better than anything else I've seen tonight, except maybe that lovely lady in the boxseats?" he replied. "This pitcher your discovery? I enjoy."

I signaled two fingers, curveball, and the guy nodded. I chuckled. Guild glared back at me. This was getting good. This guy seemed to know the game.

        When he let the ball go, I could tell by the rotation, it was going to be a beauty. The curveball came in like it was heading for Guild's head and shoulders, but it had plenty of bite. I could sense Guild's knees begin to buckle. He was a goner on this one. About 20 feet away from the plate, the ball's top-spin caused it to begin to fall downward and in toward the plate.

I'm convinced there are moments when time does slow down. As if the gods themselves can't believe what they are seeing and make the world pause a beat or two, so they can all gather around and get a better look. As soon as that ball started to break, I was silently rooting it home. The rotation was so tight that I saw a red dot appear on its hide -- the result of the seams spinning so fast that their jagged lines become a pinprick of execution.

        All Guild could do was watch that pitch break beautifully, down and over the inside corner and nestle into my glove. The pitch must have broken a good three feet and I never had to move to catch it.

When the ball fell into my glove, like a feather dropped from above, the first thing that came into my head was how could this Cuban kid deliver such a great pitch when we had yahoos with years of instruction in the minor leagues who would never come close to throwing a baseball this well?

           "Strike three," the umpire shouted and the crowd went crazy.          

"Get him out of here," Guild said, starting for the mound with his bat in hand.

Atan waved the security cops out from behind the backstop. They reluctantly began to clear the field. Usually this took awhile. But whether it was Guild with a bat in his hand, or the  satisfaction that one of their own had gotten the best of us, the protesters quickly moved back to the sidelines tonight.

The only one who wanted more time in the limelight was this kid pitcher. When the cops reached him on mound, he stood his ground. As the cops pushed him along, he continued to stare in at me, like he was still waiting for my next signal.

The smug smile that had been on his face disappeared. He straightened and tried to gather a group of men around him. They all stood with their arms linked and flashbulb popped. I saw a raven-haired woman sling a camera bag over her shoulder and yell at a policeman who was about to prod her with a night stick. Her eyes lit up like one of her flashbulbs. The cop backed off. The protester put his arm around her and started to lead her away.

I tore off my mask and went halfway out to him.

"What's your name?" I yelled.

    He stood high on tiptoe for another look at me, like he was memorizing my face.

    "Castro," he shouted back. "Fidel Castro."

As it turned out, his was a name and the woman's was a face that I would never forget. No matter how

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Castro, Fidel, 1926- Influence Fiction, Fathers and daughters Fiction, Americans Cuba Fiction, Baseball players Fiction