On a Friday night in early January Edmundo Isasi Amoros, a left fielder for the Almendares Blues, edged warily away from second base, his eyes darting from the second baseman to the pitcher to the shortstop and then down the base line to a dumpy figure in the third-base coaching box. In the dark, windy grandstand of the Gran Stadium de Habana the sellers of chicharrones, of Hatuey beer, of cigarros and hot, sweet Cuban coffee paused to watch as Pitcher Jose Miguel Fornieles of the Marianao Tigers began his delivery. Behind Fornieles the Marianao outfield had shifted to the right for the Almendares hitter, a left-hander.
The ball came in high and outside, and the batter, swinging a little late, slashed it over the third baseman's head. The Marianao left fielder, Saturnino Orestes Minoso, was off with the sound of the hit but he had a long run to recover the ball near the Gillette-Azul sign. Meanwhile, the third-base coach's left arm was cartwheeling, "¡Vaya! ¡vaya! ¡vaya!" and Edmundo Amoros was flying for home. Perhaps a dozen feet from the waiting catcher, Clyde McCullough, Amoros literally became airborne, his feet thrusting ahead of him in an exuberant, looping slide. At about the same moment the ball streaked in from the shadowed depths of the outfield. It hit the grass halfway between third and home and bounded into McCullough's mitt a little below waist level—a perfect strike, just right, but a 20th of a second too late.
The constant hum of the Cuban crowd, a noise like the buzz of 10,000 bees, lifted sharply and was punctuated by individual cries: "¡Bravo, Sandee!" for the slide; "¡Terrífico, Minnee!" for the throw; and, from a few throats, "¡Arriba, Bo-beeee!" for the third-base coach who had sent Amoros winging home. A few minutes later, when the rally ended, there were still shouts of "¡Bo-beee! ¡Bo-beee!" as the coach stumped in across the plate to the Almendares dugout. Bobby Bragan, manager of the Almendares Blues and the Cleveland Indians, late of Pittsburgh and a man sometimes described as Bad Boy Bragan, the Bumptious Busher, and even "Bobby Braggin'," did not acknowledge these salutes. Then, and for the duration of the game, he was all business—baseball business.
Actually, the run scored by Amoros was only one of several that helped Almendares defeat Marianao 5-1 and thus gain a half-game lead over the Tigers in the seesawing four-team Cuban winter league. However, for Bragan, the play exemplified the pleasures of a game that was rich both in immediate fulfillment and in the promise of future rewards. As a fierce competitor who came to Cuba not "for the $10,000 they're paying me but to get back in the swing of winning baseball," Bragan was delighted with Sandy Amoros' abandoned slide and the fact that it succeeded. As a man who must, even in January, have one eye turned a quarter of the way toward spring, he was almost equally pleased with Minnie Minoso's swift and accurate throw. On February 26 Minoso, along with the Almendares battery of Dick Brodowski and Russ Nixon, will report to Bragan's Cleveland training camp at Tucson.
For a U.S. manager (Bragan is the only one present) there is a kind of schizophrenia in Cuban baseball. Just as hoy y mañana are inextricably fused (or confused) in Latin life, so are today and tomorrow jumbled together in the winter league. The hitter who helps you in December may kill you in May; and the pitcher you may be tempted to overwork in January could be the difference in June. About 30 of the nearly 100 performers employed by the four teams are major league players; most of the rest are from Triple-A teams with major league affiliations.
Bragan was hired by Cleveland on September 29, just nine days before the start of the Cuban season on October 8, and two months after he was fired by Joe L. Brown, the general manager of Pittsburgh, as manager of the seventh-place Pirates. The fact that his new employer was Cleveland and not some other club was, as far as his winter employment was concerned, great good luck. It diminished, if it did not entirely eliminate, any conflict of loyalties. For one thing, a half dozen Indian properties already were on the Almendares roster. For another, the Almendares general manager, Julio (Monchy) d'Arcos, is Cleveland's Cuba scout.
The dual relationship was subjected to some strain in November, after Frank Lane replaced Hank Green-berg as general manager at Cleveland. "Lane wanted me to quit Almendares and come right on up to Cleveland," Bragan said after the Friday night victory. "I just had to tell him I couldn't do that. These are real fans down here—real fans. I have to be mighty careful. They don't wanta see me doin' somethin' down here that might help later at Cleveland—not unless it helps Almendares first. They wanta win. So do I."
To win, or at least to have the chance to win, is of fundamental importance to Bragan, and the desire goes beyond the game of baseball to what is sometimes referred to cynically as The Game of Life. This means being accepted and liked on one's own terms. Bragan has made the terms pretty attractive to the Cubans. When he first came to Almendares, in the winter season of 1952-53, he was whistled (the Cuban equivalent of booed) as the only norteamericano manager in the Cuban League (the Havana Reds, the Marianao Tigers and the Cienfuegos Elephants all had and have Cuban managers). Bragan converted his Latin critics by leading Almendares to two championships, by learning to speak workable Spanish, by smoking black Cuban cigars and by behaving off field like a courtly but confident southern gentleman.
HOME RUN AT LUNCH
At noon of the day Brodowski pitched Almendares back into the lead, Bragan addressed a luncheon of the American Petroleum Club at the new Hotel Capri. Despite the tightness of the race, he was a relaxed and jaunty figure in a smartly cut blue sports jacket, gray flannel slacks, a starched, French-cuffed shirt and a conservative blue tie. Naturally enough, a lot of U.S. oilmen in Cuba are from Texas, and Bragan, who maintains a home in Fort Worth, was very much at ease with them. He told a number of Texas stories, all calculated to stroke the Texas ego ("Around Fort Worth I know a lot of oilmen. They don't have to wrap up any Christmas presents because most of their gifts are Cadillacs"); he introduced Mel Harder, the Cleveland pitching coach, who said he had come down to Havana to "look at a couple of pitchers who might help Cleveland out this year"; and he praised his new boss, Frank Lane, as having the same kind of daring that characterizes the venture-capital oil business. The next day the English-language Havana Post headlined its report of the talk: BOBBY BRAGAN HITS HOME RUN AT PETROLEUM CLUB LUNCHEON.