Matt and Nena’s present

Fiction and reality in Chicago: a meeting with Orestes Miñoso.

Chicago can be one of the most attractive and inhospitable cities of the United States. The first capital of U.S. skyscrapers, on the south-western banks of Lake Michigan, it is a mixed-race city, where people of all ethnics and countries coexist, including the Latinos. It is, at the same time, one of the places with the most rigorous winters, since it is also called “Windy City,” the thermal sensation caused by the cold air coming from the great lake can be around 15 degrees Centigrade below what the thermometers mark.

During my second visit to Chicago I arrived precisely at the end of what has been considered one of the most aggressive winters of the last decades. Already in the month of March, the below zero temperatures kept the frozen snow on the sidewalks and the lake was practically covered with ice. My visit’s purpose was to continue the promotion of the U.S. edition of El hombre que amaba a los perros (The Man Who Loved Dogs), my novel now published by the New York Farrar, Strauss and Giroux house, the same work that had previously taken me to Miami and, of course, New York, cities where I made several public presentations in which I enjoyed a warm welcome – and the warmth of Miami was more human than climatic, to my satisfaction and joy.

The author of my visit to the “Windy City” had been professor María Torres, a Cuban of birth and of character, the director of academic programmes of Cuban and Latin American studies of the University of Illinois in Chicago for several years. Nena, as she is known even in the university circles, not only welcomed me and Lucía, my wife, as guests, but even as her house guests in her marvellous apartment on the 50th floor of a building in downtown Chicago with a prodigious view of the city and of a lake that looks like a sea (especially according to the Cuban concepts of what a lake is).

When we arrived, Nena handed us better coats to withstand Chicago’s climate and said something that worried me: her husband, Matt Piers, who had had to travel urgently to New York and would not see us, had left me a present that she couldn’t give me until Friday night, during a party that was being organised for me at the home of Cuban professor Amalia Perea and her husband Bill Mahoney. I must confess now that my concern lay in the present and in its character. Frequently, the economic situation we Cubans usually suffer leads to our being given and trying to be given presents that can hurt the integrity of our pride and dignity (cash is the one that most affects it) or something we don’t need (in my case the elegant and valuable fountain pen that, because I am left-handed, I have never been able to easily use, is repeated, or woollen scarves of which I only need one, which I already have, for when I travel to places like Chicago).

Worrying about the darn present, we went to Amalia and Bill’s home during our last night in the city and, after a few glasses of  red wine and a relaxed atmosphere, I believe I forgot about the promised present until…I saw it. The present came in, walking tall and smiling, at ninety, since what Matt and Nena – with the complicity of Amalia and Bill – had chosen as the best of the possible honours was a meeting, none other than with a character from my most recent novel, Herejes (Heretics). There was that man, black, from Matanzas, real, who since the late 1940s had become one of the idols of my character Daniel Kaminsky, fictitious and a Polish Jew. Orestes Miñoso, Minnie in the United States, the Cuban baseball player who with the Tigres de Matanzas during 14 seasons and with the Chicago White Sox for more than a decade, had shined in the Cuban and U.S. baseball fields with the nickname of “The Cuban Comet” and memorable performances and numbers in both sports circuits, was there, in flesh and bone.

I must confess that it had never crossed my mind that I would have the opportunity of seeing in person a myth which I had never had the occasion to see in a baseball field. When he played in the Cuban professional league, which was closed in 1960, I did not have the memory capacity to distinguish him. During the years that he continued playing systematically in the Major Leagues, almost always with the White Sox, that baseball that now, fortunately, we have flash broadcasts on Sunday nights (though until now, almost always with teams that don’t have Cuban players), had not been seen since 1964. But, though names like those of Orestes Miñoso had tried to be erased from national memory by the drastic procedures of never mentioning them, or almost never, his sports feats had been able to overcome barriers and reach the affective memories of Cuban baseball fans of all times; because among the greats of the history of Cuban sports, Orestes Miñoso has, more than a space, an altar….

Since his debut in the professional league with the Marianao team in the 1945-46 season, Miñoso started to place the foundations of that pedestal with his being elected Rookie of the Year. Then, in his 14 Cuban seasons, he was chosen on two occasions as the Most Valuable player of the league, while in the Grand Havana Stadium (baptised Latin American) there was a billboard that said “Miñoso passed through here,” as a reminder of one of the greatest connected battings in that cathedral, and for years, when he came on the field, he did so accompanied by the rhythm of a popular cha-cha by the América band that warned that “when Miñoso really bats, the ball dances the cha-cha.” Thanks to Miñoso the almost always losing Marianao team won in the 1950s several trophies and his face and figure were the most popular on the island.

But when the ignominious racial barrier had barely been brought down in the U.S. Major Leagues in 1947 by Jackie Robinson, Orestes Miñoso was hired by the Major League to be the first Latino and Cuban black to enter the fields of the most competitive baseball in the world. There, baptised as Minnie, the player from Matanzas left a trail of achievements and congenialities that has been awarded with the prestigious act that his active player number (the 9) was taken off the uniforms of the subsequent players, though all the justice has not reached him, since he still hasn’t been included in the Hall of Fame that should welcome him because of his many merits, in and outside the playing field. His personality was so outstanding with the White Sox that, after his years of glory he was included as a player of the team in the 1970s and 1980s, with brief appearances that made him the player who was a member of the Major League teams for the most decades, since he played for the last time in 1980, when he was about to turn 60. Today, at 90, he is considered one of the “ambassadors” of the emblematic Chicago team.

In my novel Herejes, Daniel Kaminsky lives for years waiting for the opportunity to someday meet Orestes Miñoso. The meeting, of course a fiction of my imagination, takes place in the 1980s, in Miami, and my character approaches Miñoso for him to sign a ball that the Matanzas player who had connected a homerun in the Cerro stadium and that the Jew had conserved for 30 years as a treasure…. Now, thanks to the generosity of Matt and Nena, like my character, I have with me a ball – not so historic, it is true – signed by “The Cuban Comet.” That ball, some pictures, and the memory of this meeting with Orestes Miñoso that was given to me in Chicago are from now on part of my most valuable belongings, one of the most important presents given to me in my life and that has filled my life, one of the most satisfactory rewards the solitary and determined trade of literature has had in store for me. (2014)

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