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Original Issue

Purpose Pitch

Cuba's Fidel Castro used sports to make himself appear a man of the people, but those who lived through his regime weren't fooled

SOMETHING STRANGE happened to the term normalize in the wake of Donald Trump's election victory. Once a vague catchall found in dull essays on human behavior, it has morphed into the trendiest word used to describe his transition from untested blowhard to president. But the process is hardly new. All politicians are abnormal, and the urge to "normalize" them never ends.

Sportswriters see this often; we're easy marks. There was the time in 1994 when the president of Colombia, Cesar Gaviria, pulled up his pant legs to show me the scars on his knees "so you have no doubts that I play" soccer, and the time, in 2007, that Michelle Obama told me that her campaigning husband "doesn't want to be president. He wants to be a basketball player."

Sports, in other words, is regarded as an easy route for the power hungry to show off their regular-guy bona fides. From Dwight Eisenhower's golf outings to Barack Obama's annual NCAA bracket picks, almost every modern U.S. president has used sports to relate to the masses. But all 11 come off as amateurs compared with their enduring nemesis, Cuba's self-appointed and now dead Maximum Leader and No. 1 fan: Fidel Castro.

The success of the athletic machine in Cuba under El Comandante—who ceded power to his brother Raúl in 2008 and passed away at age 90 last Friday—has long been the most famous achievement of Fidel's revolution and is still pumping out prime talent despite decades of grinding economic conditions. Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman, the top prizes in this winter's baseball's free-agent derby, are the latest examples of Cuba's pride and Castro's sorrow: As defectors, they fled to America seeking big league cash and opportunity, not to mention relief from the regime's human rights violations.

In Fidel's absence, Raúl and the Communist Party remain, less bombastic but perhaps more terrifying. Sports gave a glimpse of the one warmish chamber in Fidel's heart, hard by the one that flirted with nuclear conflagration: Over the years he asked for an autograph from Joe DiMaggio, did the wave at arenas and scanned the American box scores each morning. All that made Fidel seem almost reasonable. Or, to the sports agnostic, slightly mad.

Though it has been knocked down repeatedly, the suggestion that Castro was once a big league-caliber pitcher persisted into the late 1990s. It made for a cheap laugh and perhaps felt necessary in a U.S. that had failed to depose him during 1961's Bay of Pigs invasion, as if normalizing the dictator 90 miles away made him easier to live with. No matter, lazy commentators loved to muse: "The Senators/Giants/Yankees could've saved the world a lot of grief...."

Wrong. Euclides Rojas was the Cuban national team's star reliever at the 1988 World Cup in Italy, beating the U.S. in the final. Upon its return to Havana, the Big Red Machine made its required visit to Castro's office. Fidel pulled Rojas aside to talk shop.

"He was not a baseball player," says Rojas, now the bullpen coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "He was talking about the grip for different pitches, and he was completely wrong. I had a real good curveball, so when he said, 'This is the grip I used for a curveball,' I instantly knew he was not a baseball player—and even less a pitcher."

In 1994, Rojas headed north into the shark-filled Florida Straits in a makeshift raft with his wife and son and neighbors. For five days they drifted, and a terrified Rojas never slept. They spent the next six months in an internment camp at Guantanamo before joining some of his former teammates in the U.S. He never played in the majors, "but I consider myself a very rich man," Rojas says. "I'm free, and that's what it's all about."

Fidel dominated the Cuban psyche for so long that many feared he might just live forever; exiles had a saying: Hierba mala nunca muere. The bad weed never dies. Then, the night after Thanksgiving, Rojas's first agent called him at his home in Miami, late, and told him to turn on the TV. He stared at the monumental news for a few seconds, cursed and yelled, "Finally!" He spent the next few days exchanging celebratory calls and texts with fellow defectors and pitchers like Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez, and came across a photo illustration on Facebook that left his chest heaving: A sea of hands, emerging from or sinking into the waves. Estimates on the number of rafters who died trying to escape since Castro took power in 1959 can go as high as 77,000.

Like many Cuban exiles, Rojas believes that Castro's death, the eruption of social media on the island and Obama's 2014 diplomatic opening to Cuba—provided the Trump administration doesn't follow through on its threats to reverse it—are steps toward an eventual democracy. But in light of the recent security crackdown, it's clear that any transformation is moving slowly. He wants to speak to his sisters in Cuba to celebrate, but, "I'm afraid to hurt them if I call," Rojas says. "I know the emotions will come out, and I'm in a free land and they're not. I don't want to get them in trouble."

Such is the way of life, still, in Cuba: uncertain, edgy, a new normal that feels too much like the old. Enormous change is coming. But not quite yet.



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