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Boxing and the Splendor of Cuban Sports: An Interview With Author Tim Wendel

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  • Boxing and the Splendor of Cuban Sports: An Interview With Author Tim Wendel

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    By Rick Assad

    Boxing and the Splendor of Cuban Sports: An Interview with Author Tim Wendel
    Cuba is an island nation of roughly 11.4 million inhabitants and while
    sugar and cigars are major exports, superb athletes aren't very far
    behind.


    Known as a longtime baseball hotbed, the island has produced
    countless individuals who played and shined in the major leagues.
    Not to be overlooked is that Cuba has also given the world some of the
    best boxers ever to slip on a pair of gloves.


    A partial list of standouts includes Teofilo Stevenson, Felix Savon,
    Kid Gavilan, Jose Napoles, Kid Chocolate, Sugar Ramos, Benny Paret,
    Joel Casamayor, Erislandy Lara, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Yuriorkis Gamboa
    and Yordenis Ugas.


    That's a mouthful and then some.

    Tim Wendel, a Baltimore, Maryland-based writer in residence at Johns
    Hopkins University and one of the founders of USA Today Baseball
    Weekly, has visited Cuba four times. Though baseball is Wendel's specialty, he’s also familiar with the gloved warriors.

    Why has Cuba, despite its small population been so successful in
    producing so many outstanding athletes?


    "Sports provided a way for Cuba to compete and even excel on the
    international stage. Baseball and such Olympic sports as boxing and
    track and field were emphasized by the Castro government. It helped
    that Fidel Castro, the island's longtime dictator, loved sports,
    starred at basketball, ping-pong and baseball as a schoolboy,''
    explained Wendel, who has published 14 books including several works
    of fiction.

    "I had fun teasing out the "what-if" aspect of the latter
    in my first novel, "Castro's Curveball." Winning gold medals and doing
    well in such international competitions as the World Baseball Classic
    was a way for Cuba to stand out. In addition, Cuba often had the
    domestic situation to develop stellar athletes. An understanding of a
    particular sport was regularly handed down from parent to child, as
    well as team allegiances. For example, if older members of a family
    were fans of the Habana Lions, once one of the fabled winter ball
    teams, the children would likely be Lions fans, too."


    And there have been plenty of incentives for athletes to excel on the
    world stage.

    "More importantly, performing well against the rest of the world was a
    way for an athlete to help his or her family,'' said Wendel, who
    earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in English from
    Syracuse University and a master's degree in fiction writing from
    Johns Hopkins University. "For decades, the best apartments and
    automobiles, what little the island nation had, or the government
    could provide, went to the best athletes."


    Stevenson, a three-time Olympic gold medalist who recently passed
    away, never fought professionally.


    "It's unfortunate that Stevenson never boxed against the best. I
    believe that's why many baseball players have opted to defect,''
    Wendel said. "They want to test themselves against the best. Stevenson
    would have done well against Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and the other
    elite boxers from the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, politics
    derailed what could have been some epic bouts."

    Recently the Cuban government has allowed its boxers to leave but in
    turn they would have to hand over a significant portion of their purse.
    What's Wendel's opinion on this matter?

    "The new policy is better than nothing. They started to take a similar approach with baseball about 10 years ago and it allowed some of the top athletes in that sport to
    have more control over their affairs, make some money, and see more of
    the world,'' he said. "But having a significant portion of their
    earnings going back to the government sends the wrong message. If the
    Cuban government believes this will stop or delay their top athletes
    from defecting, they are misjudging the situation. The more the Cuban
    athletes hear about how professional sports works in the rest of the
    world, especially the U.S., the more they want to be a part of it."


    Wendel said there's something about athletic excellence that any fan,
    Cuban or otherwise, can appreciate.


    "The Cuban people, like sports fans anywhere, enjoy watching
    excellence and that's been the island's legacy for many decades,'' he
    pointed out. "The success of Stevenson eventually led to fellow Cuban
    champion Felix Savon. Both of them are three-time Olympic champions."

    Many Cuban stars are more than mere athletes, they're actors on a
    stage, a really big and grand stage.
    "A flair for the game, whether it's in boxing or baseball or other
    sports, has been misunderstood over the years. Cubans, similar to athletes from other
    Latin American nations, love to exhibit a joy for the game,'' said
    Wendel. "In this country, that's sometimes mistaken for showing the other team up. But
    as more Latinos have played starring roles, especially in the U.S.
    major leagues, I believe fans and even opposing players better
    understand where the Latino stars are coming from. Why do they do what
    they do?"

    Wendel focused on something with which he's very familiar: "A decade ago, I
    was an advisor on a permanent exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in
    Cooperstown,'' he said. "We advocated for a screen showing a highlight
    loop of amazing plays by Latino stars (Roberto Alomar snaring a line
    drive, Omar Vizquel bare-handing a ball to save a no-hitter, etc.).
    That became the most popular part of our "Viva Baseball" exhibit."


    Castro was the boss of the island from 1959 until his passing in 2008.
    During his four trips to Cuba, did Wendel ever have a chance to speak
    with El Presidente?


    "I never spoke with Castro, which may have been just as well. He's a
    major character in the two novels I set in Havana ("Castro's
    Curveball" and, most recently, "Escape From Castro's Cuba," the
    latter of which recently won an Indie Book Award). I was six rows
    behind Fidel at the 1999 exhibition game between Team Cuba and the
    Baltimore Orioles. That said, it could have been an awkward
    conversation."

    Wendel did however speak with a Cuban sports legend.
    "Besides such Cuban ballplayers as Victor Mesa Sr. and Omar Linares, one of the most
    intriguing conversations I ever had about Cuba and sports was with
    Alberto Juantorena, who won the 400- and 800-meter races at the 1976
    Olympics,'' he said. "When he finished competing, he became one of
    Cuba's top sports officials. We met at a reception in Havana for
    Olympic medalists. I wasn't invited and got in through a back exit.
    "What are you doing here?" Juantorena asked me. I shrugged and then we
    had an enjoyable conversation about Cuba and sports."


    For decades, getting to Cuba was a difficult proposition for an
    American. But if you did make it there, it could be a splendid
    experience.


    "Travel to the island got more difficult with Donald Trump as
    president,'' Wendel offered. "In fact, the last trip I made to Havana
    was in early 2017 before he was sworn in. When everyday people can
    talk with everyday people, I believe we're often better off than when
    politicians are left to dictate everything.''

    "One of my best times in Cuba was walking through the old part of
    town, near the harbor and having a pack of kids and someone's
    grandmother show me around,'' he said. "In fact, the older lady
    insisted that the Cubans never trusted the Russians. When I asked why,
    she replied, "We're better dancers."


    Wendel added: "On my four trips to Cuba, I bring along new baseballs.
    I'll hand them out to the kids playing the game in alleys and
    backstreets,'' he said. "They look at me with big eyes, like I just
    handed them the Hope Diamond."


    Have sports, including boxing, helped bridge the gap between the
    United States and Cuba?


    "Yes, but we certainly have a long way to go. That said, I'm reminded
    of my first trip to the island, back in 1992. I was covering some
    exhibition games between Team Cuba and Team USA. This was a few weeks
    before the Barcelona Summer Olympics,'' Wendel said. "First, I was so
    impressed with the Cuban's caliber of play. That's still one of the
    best infields, offensively and defensively, I've ever seen and I
    covered the major leagues, on and off, for 20 years."

    "Still, what I remember best about those games in Holguin, on the
    eastern end of the island, was this old man coming up to me in the
    stands. He asked me about the Minnesota Twins, who had won the 1991
    World Series, one of the best Fall Classics ever, and I told him it
    would be difficult for them to repeat. The Twins didn’t have the largest payroll in the game."


    Wendel continued: "Undoubtedly, they would lose several stars and they
    did,'' he said. "I was into my sports-talk radio answer when he
    interrupted me. "I know all that," he said. "OK, I replied. What do
    you want to know? "What do they look like," he said. "That's when it
    hit me what a star-crossed land Cuba is. Here's this guy who knew as
    much about the Twins' roster and payroll as me, but he didn't know
    what they looked like.''


    And because the island can be isolated from the outside world, it
    makes it difficult for those there to get any information.

    "That's how separated the island is from the rest of the world,
    especially the sports world,'' Wendel said. "So, I went around the
    diamond, with major help from several of the other American
    sportswriters. We put Kent Hrbek at first base, Jack Morris on the
    mound and finished with Kirby Puckett in centerfield – a guy who's
    difficult enough to describe in English. As I was searching for the
    right words, I was turning to my fellow scribes, looking out at the
    field. I didn't focus on the old Cuban gentleman until I was finished.
    Then I turned back to him and said, "There you go. There's your 1991
    World Series champions."


    Wendel then described the man's reaction. "The old man had tears in
    his eyes,'' he said. "He slapped me on the shoulder and said, "Thank
    you. Now, I know." With that, he disappeared into the crowd and since
    then I've never been able to get Cuba, its sports stars and its
    people, out of my head."


    Sports aren't perfect and neither is boxing or baseball, but sometimes
    they are able to bridge gaps.



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