THE DUKE OF HAVANA
by Steve Fainaru and Ray S�nchez/Villard Books, $24.95
A PITCHER'S STORY: Innings with David Cone
by Roger Angell/ Warner Books, $24.95
This is too ambitious to be called a baseball book: The Duke of Havana, subtitled Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream, reads like a spy novel, with agents, hustlers and political operatives skulking about an untapped source of wealth: baseball players in Castro's economically wheezing Cuba. The central story is how Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez, with help from his friends and a sturdy engine-powered fishing vessel (not a raft), goes from banned ballplayer living in a concrete shack in Cuba to World Series hero for the New York Yankees. From that theme a boatload of well-drawn characters springs forth.
The most smarmy of the bunch is player agent Joe Cubas. One of the book's revelations is that Cubas, according to two of his former soldiers and Gordon Blakeley, a Yankees executive, arranged for a kickback from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for delivering pitcher Rolando Arrojo to them in 1997—before a sham of a tryout for other clubs. Cubas and the Devil Rays deny the charge. Blakeley said Cubas asked the Yankees for a $500,000 kickback for bringing Hernandez to them, offering Blakeley a piece of the action. The team and Blakeley refused him.
That kind of reporting, and skillful word pictures of one of the globe's mysterious corners, make this book a fascinating journey.
The circuitous 16-season career of pitcher David Cone is curiously Zelig-like. The cocaine-riddled 1983 Kansas City Royals clubhouse? Cone was there. The scandalous New York Mets of the late '80s? Five of the past eight world champions? The White House and other frontlines of labor negotiations? Cone was there, there, there. Cone's career, even judiciously abridged, turns out to be a Mariano Rivera for Roger Angell: It saves the story after the writer chooses to tell it through the prism of the 2000 season, in which the 37-year-old Cone withered to a 4-14 record.
Cone granted Angell exclusive access, so it seems odd that he rarely takes us deep into the anguish, labor and emotions of a prolific pitcher passing into his twilight. As Cone's season deteriorates, the pitcher withdraws, and a sympathetic Angell looks away rather than inward. "I felt that he had enough troubles without my always pushing such questions at him," he writes.
Angell writes with economical precision, nailing observations as a great pitcher does corners. Yankees manager Joe Torre "exudes the wisdom of an elderly hunting dog." The book gets off the ground, even soars at moments, on the strength of Cone's itinerary and Angell's acuity.