“You can tell who works for the government by who bothers to sing the national anthem. “
Michael Lewis’ exploration of Cuban baseball in “Vanity Fair” is a virtuoso performance in reportage and craft. It’s sprawling–probably 15-20,000 words or thereabouts–but worth every second of your time. I can say, without exaggeration, that it may be the finest example of long-form sports journalism I’ve ever read. As portraiture goes, it’s vivid. Almost impossibly vivid:
“Behind home plate are parked three Chinese-made bicycles—two of which turn out to belong to players, who had pedaled to the ballpark on them. Roaming around freely are several chickens, a gaggle of mental patients, and a few doctors in hospital greens. The foul lines are not painted but laid upon the field, in strips of old rubber tires painted white. Just off the field, down the foul lines, are the long, single-story hospital buildings, presumably filled with Cuban lunatics. But the most unsettling aspect of the place, for an American baseball fan, is the concession stand.”
And it’s a mournful reminder of the assumptions that don’t hold there:
“A few made it to the big leagues, most did not, but they all needed a great deal of help. From the outside it all looked so easy for the likes of Arocha and Oropesa and Ordoñez. None of it was. Nothing in their experience had prepared them for American life. One of Gus Dominguez’s new Cuban clients, Ariel Prieto, took his $1.2 million signing-bonus check from the Oakland A’s, stuck it in his jeans, and ran them through the washing machine. Eddie Oropesa, awed by the size of American refrigerators, bet a fellow player he could stay inside one for 15 minutes—and might have suffocated if Dominguez hadn’t opened the door and found him shivering.”
And it’s brimming with characters:
“A penchant for arguing with the umps isn’t usually a recipe for success in a police state. But Víctor Mesa’s new career as a baseball manager has made his playing career seem measured and balanced. He’s been thrown out of more games than all the other Cuban managers put together. Once, he got himself thrown out of a game before it started, which is hard to do. (The umpire was warning him in advance not to make trouble or come out on the field, to which Mesa replied, ‘Are you fucking blind? I’m on the field right now.’)”
And it’s revelatory in a way that saddens:
” Tonight, Camagüey will face the hated Industriales, whose fan base makes the Yankees’ seem docile. My young Cuban traveling companion is a rabid Industriales fan. After I’ve dragged him down to the team’s dugout he still can’t believe he’s there, standing next to his heroes. But to know who they are he needs to see their numbers. Their faces he doesn’t recognize: he’s never seen them before. There are no TV close-ups, and there are no newspaper profiles. They never appear on posters, because there are no posters, and they never appear in product endorsements, because there are no products, and even if there were, it would be against the law to endorse them. The Cuban baseball fan knows every name and every statistic, just like an American fan, but he can walk past his favorite player in broad daylight without a hint of recognition.”
I’m not here to rhapsodize endlessly about Lewis’ skills as a writer (although that would be justified). Instead, what his piece calls to mind for me, as an American and a baseball fan, is the U.S.’s ill-advised policy toward Cuban refugees. In other words: Why aren’t we allowing these people to get out?
In 1995, the Clinton Administration, after sub rosa meetings with highly placed Cuban officials, declared that all Cuban refugees intercepted at sea would be returned to their native land. In doing so, Clinton toppled the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), which for almost three decades had governed our immigration policy toward the island dictatorship. Under the CAA, Cuban “boat people” were granted asylum in the U.S., and even many of those in Cuba who wanted to defect were given sanctuary at Guantanamo Bay. No more. For reasons sufficient unto himself, President Clinton mandated that refugees making it even as far as our coastal waters be sent back into the clutches of Fidel Castro, where retribution no doubt awaited them.
It was an immoral policy shift and one that no doubt bolstered the Communist menace at our doorstep. Certainly, absolute open-borders immigration is not a tenable position for the U.S. However, such a policy toward Cuba is indeed the right and sound thing to do. Under current law, those making it to our shores are afforded safe haven, but those apprehended at sea–or even mere feet from dry land–are repatriated by force. This has the unintended and obscene consequence of giving Cuban rafters in distress on the high seas every incentive not to seek rescue.
Anything the U.S. can do to rescue people from Fidel and Raul should be done (although Fidel is no longer overtly running the show, rank-and-file Cubans are still clamoring to get out), and that most certainly entails reversing Clinton’s policy. Doing so improves the lives of our fellow human beings and chips away piecemeal at what Castro has wrought.
If we happen upon a few nifty ballplayers in the process, then consider that a happy, lesser outgrowth.