El Duque's Excellent Adventure

How Cuba's ace pitcher escaped political oppression to become part of a great American success story.

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Sergio Hernandez, a wiry fellow on an old bicycle offers that "I used to play with El Duque. You want to see where we played?"

Across town is a baseball field carved out of the countryside. It's hardly lavish--the two brick dugouts are falling apart, there are no grandstands, the infield is simply red clay cleared of scrubby grass, and a herd of goats grazes in right field. But it's well tended, and a sign on the outfield fence indicates 400 feet to straightaway center.

"The government keeps a close eye on the good baseball players," explains Hernandez (no relation to the pitcher). "If you're good, they promote you quickly to higher leagues. When El Duque was barely in his teens he was already playing with the grown-ups."

No one expresses anger that Hernandez defected from Cuba, nor resentment that he is now a millionaire, living a life that those he left behind can hardly even imagine.

"A few years ago, people might have criticized El Duque for leaving, considered him a bad socialist," says Boris Rodriguez, sommelier at Las Ruinas, one of Havana's most lavish restaurants. "But no longer. Now we think of him simply as a Cuban, like ourselves, and we are happy that he is showing the world how talented a Cuban can be."

Enrique Munz, who runs a cigar shop, agrees. "Life is short," he reflects. "Each one of us has to do the best we can. I don't criticize anyone's choice."

The only note of dissent comes from a bartender at the legendary Floridita, where Hemingway used to drink his Daiquiris and entertain his friends.

"Of course we're happy that El Duque has shown the world how good Cuban baseball players really are," says Juan Carlos Fernandez. "But we've got plenty more just as good, and even better, still here!"

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