Rumor has it that young Fidel Castro wavered briefly, torn between Cuba, politics and revolution, and a potential career in baseball's Big Leagues. He was very athletic growing up, "track star, basketball player, Ping-Pong champion, and promising pitcher," writes
author Tim Wendel. Stories have floated around since the late 1940's that Castro might have signed a contract to play ball in the States, although no definite proof has ever been found. If he did, certainly fate had other plans for him, for as we now know, he was not destined to be a professional athlete but rather a professional revolutionary. His bloody rise to power in his island homeland left thousands dead, friend and foe alike.
Castro's Curveball is a fictionalized account of events as they might have happened that winter, when Fidel's future hung in the balance. Billy Bryan, whose declining career as a catcher has left him just short of major league glory, is playing winter ball in Cuba when a political demonstration interrupts a game. One young revolutionary steps up to the mound and begins mock-pitching to a crowd of admirers. Disgusted, Bryan rolls him a ball, certain he is all show and will back away.
"The kid stared at the ball lying at his feet. I figured he was chicken. But with the crowd beginning to buzz, he reached down and picked up the ball and studied it like he had stumbled across the Hope diamond. I got down into my crouch, and he looked from the ball to me and back to the ball…"
The kid, Fidel Castro, does not back down, but rather pitches the ball, stunning the fans with an amazing curveball. He strikes out one of the professional players, then marches off the field, accompanied by a beautiful woman, a photographer who had been snapping shots of the protest. Bryan hastily asks for the kid's name, and so begins a most unlikely friendship.
When Bryan's boss, impressed by the mighty curveball, asks Bryan to track down young Castro and bring him for a tryout, he begins the process of hunting him down, visiting areas of Havana rarely seen by yanqui eyes. The beautiful photographer, Malena Fonseca, is a close compatriot of Castro's. She is intrigued by this American who seems so different, not above befriending a native, so she helps him in his search. The romantic relationship that ensues takes both Bryan and her by surprise.
The narrative, written from Bryan's point of view as he visits Cuba for the first time since leaving over 40 years before, is witty and deeply moving. The bittersweet contrast between his recollections of a relatively innocent time, when trouble was just beginning to brew, and the knowledge in hindsight of the terrible turmoil that followed makes for truly engrossing reading.
This book is part adventure and part political history, but mainly a love story. Billy loves Malena; Malena loves Billy and Cuba; Castro loves Cuba and Malena, and maybe even Billy, but he loves himself most of all. And you will love this book.