Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports

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9780060934927: Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports

In an artful pastiche of observation, personal narrative, interviews, and investigative reporting, S.L. Price, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, describes sports and athletes in today's Cuba. On his journeys to the island, Price finds a country that celebrates sports like no other and a regime that uses games as both symbol and weapon in its dying revolution. He finds Olympic and world champion boxers, track stars, volleyball and baseball players, but he also finds that with Castro's revolution staggering beneath the weight of a great depression, Cuba's famed sports system is imploding. Athletes are defecting by plane and raft. Superstars bike to games and legends like boxer Teofilo Stevenson are forced to lost themselves in a bottle of rum.

Beyond an examination of sports in the hothouse of revolution, Pitching Around Fidel presents a vibrant and realistic portrait of Cuba today, complete with sex-happy tourists, blackouts, Fidel's famous former lover, and a black-power fugitive wanted in the U.S. for murder and hijacking. At once a biting travelogue and a meditation on sports in both America and Cuba, Pitching Around Fidel is a valuable document about a time and place that is close to fading away.

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Review:

At the core of Cuban sports is an enigma that Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price captures in two sentences. The first part of it "holds that the great Cuban sports machine--instrument of totalitarian control and propaganda--is rightfully cracking apart. The second holds that Castro's regime not only has produced an unparalleled athletic system, but has also fostered a sports purist's delight, an American ideal, no less, for Cuba is one of the last places where athletes play for little more than love of the game." How is that possible? Pitching Around Fidel smartly aligns the contradictions. It's a provocative and penetrating look at the most fascinating and rabid sports culture on the planet, why sports in Cuba works, why it doesn't, and how its marvelous and gifted athletes are torn between the loyalties of home and the whiff of money 90 miles across the sea.

Cuban athletes have been put on a pedestal since Castro took power, and their achievements on the international stage have swelled the national chest and been interpreted as triumphs over capitalism. Yet as conditions on the embargoed island deteriorate, athletes who complain are banished to oblivion, while others--think Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez of the Yankees and Mets shortstop Rey Ordonez--flee for freedom and cash. Price's reportage on how freedom and money have changed many of the exiles, Ordonez most notably, is stunning. And still, despite rundown facilities and repatched equipment, Cuba keeps turning out remarkable athletes and loyal fans.

Examining the state of sports on the island, Price is in effect examining the state itself, and his own relationship to sports--and the big money of American sports--in the process. While the portrait he paints is not pretty, it is fascinating. There's much poignance in the joy that emanates from Cuba's playing fields, the passion in the stands, and the shabbiness Price observes in the appearance of the great Teofilo Stevenson--the multi-Olympic heavyweight champion and the island's reigning sports icon. Not even an icon can override the revolution's contradictions. --Jeff Silverman

About the Author:

S. L. Price, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated since 1994, has written two other books—Pitching Around Fidel, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Far Afield, which Esquire named one of the top five books of 2007. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his family.

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