Yankee pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernández is the focal point of this informative, behind-the-scenes look at the role of baseball in US-Cuban relations.
Ever since the 1991 defection of pitcher René Arocha, many fellow Cuban athletes have followed suit, the most well known being El Duque and his younger half brother Lívan Hernandez. El Duque is portrayed in mostly glowing fashion, both as a talent and as a noble man who never lost faith that he would pitch again (even after Cuban baseball officials, for political reasons, forbade the national star to play). His ultimate escape on a raft in treacherous waters is detailed in a matter-of-fact and undramatic way. The authors—both reporters—do a better job providing a comprehensive picture of Cuban life under Castro, showing the country's fascination with baseball (both playing and watching), and revealing the conflict between stalwart party men and players willing to risk everything to have a chance at freedom and riches. The most riveting character in the book is actually not El Duque, but the revolutionary sports agent José “Joe” Cubas, who becomes an unofficial representative for US Major League teams willing to participate in the corrupt process of tapping Cuban talent. Born in the US to parents who, as honeymooners, ended up staying in Miami because of Castro’s revolution, Cubas (called “the Great Liberator” by 60 Minutes) is the intelligent, ruthless, and mercenary master at engineering the escapes and eventual signings of the defecting players. The story basically ends with the reunion between El Duque and his family during the 1998 World Series.
Although heartwarming, the abrupt ending leaves the reader a little shortchanged, since the authors do not reveal if the most successful defector has any lingering homesickness or loyalty to Cuba—an intriguing premise only hinted at in the epilogue.