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Baseball by the Books

Lifting the Fog
Book Review by Stephen Lehman

Mark Rucker and Peter C. Bjarkman. Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball. Kingston, N. Y.: Total/Sports Illustrated, 1999, 259 pp., $29.95, cloth.

It is well known in this country that Cuba is an island that is: (1) ninety miles off the coast of Florida; (2) decades removed from the world-market neo-capitalist juggernaut driven by branded multinational corporations (many with more resources and power than the Cuban government) and defined by such recent phenomena as the World Trade Organization and NAFTA; and (3) light-years from the high-tech, rapidly changing, consumer-driven culture that the United States has become at the turn of the century. Cuba is a dark island to most Americans, a political and cultural black hole, a pariah nation-the boy in the run-down house at the end of the cul de sac that we're not supposed to visit, the boy who we're not supposed to play with because his family is too different, too threatening, too unlike us. Relative to its Caribbean neighbors, very few Americans have visited Cuba in the past forty years. Almost no trade has taken place between the tiny island and the massive and powerful political megalith to its north (us). For any American middle-aged or younger, that's always been the story with Cuba. We don't deal with Cuba. We don't even like to talk about Cuba. There's an embargo on, after all, one that impacts trade in grain, manufactured goods, sugar, rum, cigars, and, among numerous other commodities, baseball players. Since the embargo was imposed by the Kennedy administration in 1961, a by-product of a Cold War ideological struggle that still lives today in the fevered dreams of Jesse Helms and his ilk, Cuban baseball has been largely confined to the island-except for a few international excursions, the Olympics and such, where Fidel Castro's national team would emerge to (usually) kick a fair amount of U. S. and other countries' amateur baseball butt. On those occasions, it always seemed the Cuban national teams would then retreat behind the metaphorical fog enveloping their mysterious island. Occasionally, however, they would leave behind an AWOL player or two seeking asylum in the bounteous land of cell phones, designer sneakers (assembled in sweat shops and foreign prisons), and everything-dot com to try their skills in the lucrative U. S. major leagues. At least that's the way it appeared to be in the accounts of the U. S. popular press.

If that's how most Americans still see Cuba in 1999, you wouldn't know it talking to Mark Rucker and Peter Bjarkman. Smoke has almost no mention of international intrigue, assassination attempts, diplomatic freeze-outs, or ideological warfare. It's view of Cuba is not grim; the authors don't see Cuba as some sort of rogue culture to demonize and shun. Smoke is about something else: Cuban baseball. That's it, and that's plenty. The book doesn't in any way ignore the fact of the revolution or its impact on Cuban and American baseball, however. In fact, Smoke deals extensively with the subject throughout, and it does so in a way that is neither ideological nor judgmental. In fact, the overriding feeling of this book is a sheer, palpable delight-the authors' joy in excavating and sharing a vast, sweeping, and heretofore almost entirely obscured historical baseball narrative that is astonishingly rich and varied, overwhelmingly romantic in character, and intertwined throughout-either actively or reactively-with the story of baseball as it has played out in the United States.

As a contribution to baseball publishing, Smoke is certainly an eccentricity. The names and key contests of Cuban baseball history are, after all, esoteric subject matter for even the die-hard ball fan. No, I'll take that further: it's esoteric for most baseball historians as well. Yet Smoke isn't a dusty academic tome intended only for a tiny band of stolid scholars who spend their days putting the magnifying glass to Latin American culture and history. This book is aimed squarely at a wide range of baseball generalists, and in a coffee table format, no less. As someone who knew virtually nothing about Cuban baseball except for a few big league names, I would have considered this a chancy publishing venture at best. I am pleased to report that, against all odds, Smoke works as a book, and works triumphantly, drawing the reader immediately into its strange and wonderful new baseball culture and history by quickly creating a familiar context-the experience of the game itself, no different in any important particular from what we already know and love-and by making recognizable connections to the American game. It works also because it's a joy to browse through, to consume in bits and pieces, a few photos and captions at a time, or to read straight through for a visual and anecdotal cornucopia of baseball offerings. Bjarkman's historical essays are short and lively and engaging throughout. There's nothing dry about Bjarkman's prose (as is evident elsewhere in this issue in his article on Cuban star Conrado Marrero); if anything, he errs on the side of occasionally being overly florid, sometimes implying an exaggerated importance to certain events and personalities, a consequence of his obvious love of the subject. Yet that's a quibble, really, because the bright, vivid, and imaginative presentation (in both the prose and the graphic design used to present a massive array of Cuban baseball photos and memorabilia) is ultimately the very thing that pulls the reader into this historical esoterica and sweeps him or her along to the final pages.

To read the rest of this review, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2000 issue.

STEPHEN LEHMAN is editor of Elysian Fields Quarterly.

© 2000 Daniel Gabriel


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