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Original Issue

Books Two books, one fact, one fiction, portray a different sports landscape in Cuba

Pitching Around Fidel
by S.L. Price
Harper Collins, $24

Imagine, if you can, a land where tickets to world-class
baseball games cost less than a dime and where baseball players
carry their own bags, chat amiably with fans and give their all
for little more than love of the game. Imagine, too, a land
where Big Brother watches jealously over his jocks and if he
doesn't like what he sees, bans them from competition and sets
them to work in an insane asylum or someplace very much like one.

!Bienvenidos a Cuba! Few subjects induce more visceral argument
than our little island neighbor to the south and the furry
comandante who rules it. But Pitching Around Fidel is a rarity:
a balanced, compassionate, intimate journal of Cuba's slow,
agonizing decay. Price, a senior writer at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED,
leaves no doubt that the reason Cuban athletes play for love of
the game is that they have little else to play for. Food, let
alone equipment, is scarce; locker rooms reek of sewage. Even
Teofilo Stevenson, Cuba's Muhammad Ali, greets Price shoddily
dressed and badly in need of a dentist's services.

Still, after weeks of eating, drinking and talking with
hospitable Cuban athletes, Price finds U.S. athletes--most of
them spoiled little corporations--more unappetizing than ever.
Even Cuban players who make it to the States, he reports, seem
to lose their kindness as quickly as their poverty. The Cuban
family of New York Mets shortstop Rey Ordonez (who defected in
1993) remembers him as a sensitive, generous man who doted on
the young son he left behind, Rey Jr. ("I'm just like my
father," the boy proudly tells Price.) But back in the U.S.,
when the ballplayer is asked if he would like to send a little
something to his Cuban relations, he replies, "F--- all those
people. As far as I'm concerned, the whole island can sink."

Price wishes a kinder fate for that unlucky nation and its
people. His readers will likely feel the same.

Havana Heat
by Darryl Brock
Total Sports Illustrated, $24.95

You won't find pitcher Luther Taylor in The Baseball
Encyclopedia, despite his distinguished career with the New York
Giants from 1900 to 1908, but you will find Dummy Taylor, the
name by which he was better known--not for any mental defect but
because he was deaf. Brock's story, based on Taylor's life, is a
boilerplate sports yarn: Cut by the Giants, Taylor wants a last
crack at the Show and goes on a barnstorming trip to Cuba,
yadda, yadda, yadda, climaxing in the Big Game in Chapter 18.
But Taylor, as imagined by Brock, is a unique, charming
character, and the novel's evocation of early-20th-century
baseball, with its loose discipline and colorful players, is
vivid and convincing.