A conversation with Jerry Izenberg, part VIII: recollections of Fidel Castro and other Cuban tales

In an undated photo (from left), Jim Simpson, Jerry Izenberg, Dan Patrick and Rick Reilly. NATIONAL SPORTSCASTERS AND SPORTSWRITERS ASSOCIATION & HALL OF FAME

In an undated photo, (from left) Jim Simpson, Jerry Izenberg, Dan Patrick and Rick Reilly. NATIONAL SPORTSCASTERS AND SPORTSWRITERS ASSOCIATION & HALL OF FAME

Fidel Castro (right) in 1959. BOGDAN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Fidel Castro (right) in 1959.
BOGDAN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Nov. 16, 2015) — The geopolitical landscape — and realities — of the Cold War changed the world at a rapid pace.

Longtime sports columnist Jerry Izenberg remembers those days and key individuals from that time.

In a September phone interview, Izenberg talked about some of the great Cuban athletes, including dynamic Olympic champions in heavyweight boxer Teofilo Stevenson and middle-distance runner Alberto Juantorena, who excelled during the early years of the Castro regime.

Izenberg is a 15-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and a winner of the Red Smith Award, recognized as a lifetime achievement accolade and presented annually by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

Decades before he interviewed Nelson Mandela during an Olympic boxing tournament, the Newark Star-Ledger (New Jersey) columnist had an interest in asking Fidel Castro one question.

Some background precedes that tale from a conference years ago…

“Every year of the Olympics, like six weeks before, they have the International Scientific Congress (promoted as ‘Olympic Sport and Sport for All’), and they discuss all subjects of sports and I was speaking about the frauds that take place during the Olympics,” Izenberg said by phone from from his home near Las Vegas. “And also speaking with his own little group (at that event) was (Alberto) Juantorena, and we got to be friendly, and he told me Stevenson was his friend.

“And I said, ‘I know Stevenson because he won the Olympics four times in 16 years. … I said I want to go to Cuba, but they’ll take my passport if I do, and I don’t want that to happen,’ ” Izenberg recalled telling Juantorena.

“And he said, ‘You can get on Mexican Airlines and go, and I can help you out with that. And why do you want to go?’

I said, ‘I wanna see if I can get half an hour with Castro. I have one question I want to ask him about the boxing team and the way they train for the Olympics and how a little country wins so many golds.”

Juantorena handed Izenberg, now 85, a business card “that he threw out recently.” Printed on the card was the name of the chargé d’affaires at the United Nations “who we were dealing with occasionally from Cuba.”

According to Juantorena, Izenberg remembered the great runner saying that the diplomatic contact “knows you very well. He said that if you show him this, maybe he can set you up with Castro. And then he said, ‘Why do you want to do this? What is the one question you want to ask him?’ ”

Helping connect the dots from national leaders to the Olympics to interviews to boxing to baseball, Izenberg then told me about Preston Gomez, who passed away in 2009. Born in Cuba, Gomez had a long career as a baseball manager, both in the minor leagues (farm systems of the Reds, Dodgers and Yankees) and in the bigs (Padres, Astros, Cubs).

Gomez, who played for the Washington Senators in 1944, also led the Havana Sugar Kings to the International League title in 1959 as their manager, and piloted the club to the Junior World Series crown the same year.

“His brother was arrested and sent to the Isle of Pines (Isla de Pinos) after the revolution,” Izenberg said. “And he got his brother out because he knew Castro.”

As manager of the Sugar Kings (Cincinnati Reds affiliate), Gomez worked under owner Roberto “Bobby” Maduro, who lived in Miami at the time.

One day, Gomez told Izenberg a story about how shortly after the Cuban revolution the Sugar Kings played against an opponent and Castro, a former University of Havana pitcher, let it be known that he wanted to pitch.

“So he stopped the game and came out of the stands and he wanted to pitch to one batter,” Izenberg continued, saying this atypical stoppage of time happened in 1960. “Well, he could do whatever the hell he wanted.”

“Well, Castro threw three pitches that were like nine miles over the batter’s head. It was strike one, strike two, strike three, and he cheered and they fired guns in the air and he went back in the crowd.

“Well, one of those balls landed near Gomez in the coaching box, and he called up Maduro and said, ‘Listen, we’re going on a road trip tomorrow and you’re coming back after that without me. I ain’t gonna stay here.’

“And Maduro said, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t stay, either.’ ”

“And that’s how they made the arrangements to go to Jersey City, where they played half the season.”

(Indeed, after the Castro regime nationalized all American-owned business that year, the Sugar Kings relocated to Jersey City, New Jersey, and became known as the Jersey City Jerseys.)

Fast forward to November 2015, and the Castro regime is still in charge. And baseball has gone through massive changes in that span, though.

“There were so many interesting things happening in baseball in those days,” Izenberg declared.

Part IX: TBA

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