One afternoon, not long after Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez's 1997 defection, I was riding down Havana's Fifth Avenue with a Cuban sports official when she made a surprising admission. "Some people resent that he left," she said. "But I'm happy. Duque deserves it; he worked hard. He's going to become rich. I have to be happy for him." Before I could respond, the usually self-contained woman began screaming like a teenybopper come face-to-face with her idol. "Here he is! Here he is!" she said, pointing to an approaching string of black Mercedes, then craning her neck to watch it pass. "There goes Fidel!"
When she settled back into her seat, her face held an expression that came very close to bliss. "We Cubans can feel it when he's near," she said.
Fidel Castro stepped down last week at the age of 81, leaving a void his bland successor and brother, Raul, can never hope to fill. For 49 years the Cuban dictator had been the ultimate power, the omnipresent fact of Cuban life, and especially within the sporting culture he conceived and controlled, his presence will linger like the scent of a bad cigar. With the exception, perhaps, of legendary Louisiana governor Huey Long, himself a leftist tyrant who in the 1920s became a meddlesome fan of the LSU football program, no politician anywhere, ever, can match Castro for his canny devotion to athletes and the games they play. As political strategies go, it's easy to mock. But Castro outlasted nine U.S. presidents, and the Kingfish has lived on through a seemingly endless series of movies, plays and books. History, it turns out, finds shameless jock sniffers irresistible.
This might be because a leader with a sincere sports jones comes off like a man of the people, even if he brooks no opposition, abuses human rights and commands loyalty with neighborhood spies and a nightstick. Castro's most fevered enemies never accused him of cynicism when it came to the Cuban sports machine, which, despite the island's population of just 11 million, he willed into the best pound-for-pound program on the planet. Indeed, Cuban ballplayers heard tales of the young presidente going to Havana's Latinoamericano Stadium for batting practice "at two or three in the morning," former Cardinals pitcher Rene Arocha said once. "The story is that Fidel would be at the plate yelling, 'Throw it fast!' while an escort would stand next to the mound whispering, 'Throw it slow.'"
Castro never allowed statues of himself in Cuba. But he made sure that photos—always the man of action—circulated: Fidel golfing with Che Guevara, Fidel in boxing gloves, Fidel pitching in flannels with BARBUDOS—the Bearded Ones—stitched across his chest.
In Castro's fight with the U.S., war was not an option, so vanquishing Americans on the field became a constant goal. When Cuban boxers beat the U.S. at the 1991 Pan Am Games, Fidel was part of the delirious crowd at Havana's Sports City arena, doing the wave. It was, he was sure, another victory against the capitalistas.
"It doesn't surprise me to see those miserable men coming over to offer money to our ballplayers and our ballplayers tell them to go to hell," Castro said during the regime's salad days in the mid-'60s. "That's a man of high integrity, dignity, a man who doesn't surrender, doesn't sell himself."
But the years took the gloss off his rebel aura, and the loss of Soviet support in the 1990s drained much of the allure from Castro's socialist dream. Dozens of athletes turned their backs on their $20 monthly stipend, gave up their hopes of someday owning a used Lada and defected. Castro called them traitors, refused to loosen his grip. Yet even as his former players slammed him, even as their successes served as dramatic counterpoints to his revolution, Castro never lost his fascination with the American game.
"He told me he never had an appointment before 3 p.m., mainly because he stayed up all night," New Mexico governor Bill Richardson told me about a 1996 meeting with Castro. "And what he'd do for several hours before he saw anybody was read the newspapers. So he knew all the standings, the batting averages. He was a prolific follower of U.S. baseball." So maybe Joe DiMaggio shouldn't have been surprised when, in 1998, he heard that the man who sneered at los Yanquis but loved the Yankees wanted his autograph. For the politician it seemed a contradiction. But for the man it made perfect sense.
Castro was, the story went, a decent pitcher, nearly signed by the Yankees, the Giants or the Senators. That tale was revealed as too good to be true, but in a Cuba dedicated to cultivating Castro's cult of personality, his prowess as a ballplayer never came up. Tellingly, in all his praise of those strong enough to resist the ravenous scouts, Castro never used himself as an example. Yet political mythmaking—but only, paradoxically, in the U.S.—allowed him to realize the Cuban male's great fantasy: For many, Fidel was his nation's most famous ballplayer.
In the end, the most visible accomplishment of Castro's reign may well be the sports program that served as a quaint contrast to the athletic factories in the U.S. As the final of the 2006 World Baseball Classic—Cuba versus Japan—showed, Cuban baseball remains strong. Visiting Americans love going to Cuban games because with no free agency, no franchise movement and no owners blackmailing cities for new stadiums, it all smacks of 1950s America, ignoring the inconvenient fact that such a fantasyland is only possible in a dictatorship. There's a reason raft traffic in the Florida Straits goes only one way.
His legacy? That will take decades to sort out. But it's clear which one Castro preferred. After news broke in 2006 that he might have had intestinal cancer and the world waited to hear whether he was dead or alive, the Cuban regime released the dramatic first photos of its ailing leader. He wore neither the famous military fatigues of his youth, nor the dark business suits he adopted in the 1990s. No, to demonstrate his vigor, Fidel Castro chose instead a sweat suit from the Cuban national team, and for the first time he looked truly pathetic, just another wannabe denying what was obvious to all. Still alive, went the unspoken message. Still ready to play. But his game was done.
FREE AT SI.COM
Your one stop for offbeat humor and the wackiest sports stories and links, including Hot Clicks and the Daily List, is SI.com/extramustard.
"The young presidente took batting practice at two or three IN THE MORNING."
BY JOHN UELAND