Baseball and Fiction
A Review by Larry Rohter
Kill the Ampaya! The Best Latin American Baseball Fiction edited and Translated by Dick Cluster (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016), 221 pages
In December 1999, President Hugo Chávez took to the balcony of the Miraflores Palace in Caracas to announce that a nationwide referendum had overwhelming approved a new constitution that, among other things, transformed Venezuela into a Bolivarian Republic. “Hemos conectado cuadrangular con la casa llena!” he exulted to a crowd of supporters and a handful of foreign correspondents, including me. “We’ve smacked a four-bagger with the bases loaded!” The Venezuelans cheered wildly, but a pair of reporters from Spain standing alongside me looked absolutely baffled. “What does that mean?” they asked.
Here in the United States, we tend to think of baseball as the American game. But it’s more than that: as the unscripted remarks of Hugo Chávez—first recruited into the Venezuelan military as a left-handed pitcher on the Army’s team—made abundantly clear, baseball is also the game of the Americas, deeply embedded in the culture and daily life of many Spanish-speaking nations. Just how profound are those roots? One answer can be found in a delightful new anthology entitled Kill the Ámpaya! The Best Latin American Baseball Fiction, edited and translated by the U.S. novelist and historian of Cuba Dick Cluster.
All told there are 18 stories in this collection, gathered from six baseball-besotted countries and commonwealths scattered around the Caribbean basin: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezua, Nicaragua and Mexico. There is also great variety in the settings, topics and style of writing. The majority of the stories are set in a recognizable present, but a couple date as far back as the 1930s, and a few employ alternate histories. Some are quite funny, others adopt the dramatically overwrought tone of a telenovela, and several are quite literary in their seriousness. What unites them all, though, is the centrality of béisbol, the distinctly Latin American adaptation of the pastoral 19th- century game that North Americans call our own.
Because baseball is a sport in which even the greatest players fail many more times than they succeed, the game may lend itself to a specifically Latin American sense of melancholy and disenchantment. Kill the Ámpaya (ámpaya being the Spanish pronunciation of the English “umpire”) has several stories in this vein, perhaps the most affecting of which is Sergio Ramírez’s “Apparition in the Brick Factory.” The ghost of Casey Stengel plays an important role here, but the main character is a retired Nicaraguan slugger, down on his luck, who becomes a Pentecostal minister. We meet him as he is ruefully reviewing his life, having learned, after bitter experiences with both Somoza and the Sandinistas, that fame is “no guarantee against injustice.”
Politics is perpetually a source of disappointment for Latin Americans, which allows baseball to serve as an effective metaphor for such letdowns: Ruben Blades’ classic salsa song “Segunda Mitad del Noveno,” or “Bottom of the Ninth” is an outstanding example. In this collection, Rodrigo Blanco Calderón’s “The Last Voyage of Arcaya the Shark” offers perhaps the best illustration of this link, as he equates the declining fortunes of a diehard Venezuelan fan’s favorite team, the Sharks of La Guaira, with the disasters—natural and man-made—that have befallen their country over the last two decades. “Our past was now dead, and our future as shriveled as a dried-up riverbed,” the fan observes after a star player dies. “Off the field, the reality is not very different.” Humor, resentment, regret—they are all mixed together here, all without Hugo Chávez’s name ever being mentioned.
In addition to Sergio Ramírez, several other highly-regarded Latin American writers are represented here. The Cuban Leonardo Padura, best-known for his detective novels, contributes “The Wall,” the touching tale of a bored government bureaucrat who, after spying a little boy practicing his fielding on the street outside his office, tries to recapture his own youthful dreams of becoming a star player. Mexican screenwriter and dramatist Vicente Leñero gives us a poignant one-act playlet , “Aut at Third,” while Andrés Eloy Blanco offers a small gem of 20th-century Venezuelan literature, “The Glory of Mamporal,” about two feuding towns facing off on the diamond. Additionally, some of the younger contributors made the prestigious 2007 “Bogotá 39” list of the region’s most promising new literary talents.
Regardless of age or nationality, however, all of the writers here clearly regard baseball as a subject worthy of literature. That hasn’t always been the case in Latin America (or the United States, for that matter). As Cluster points out in an introductory essay, “for a long time Latin American high culture looked toward Europe” and disdained anything that smacked of U.S. popular culture, with the result that “writing about baseball was no way to make one’s literary mark as a ‘serious’ writer.” But in Kill the Ámpaya we are fortunately reading writers who, like skillful pitchers, are not afraid to mix high and low, or to introduce more erudite literary influences into their baseball stories.
Arturo Arango’s “The Stadium,” for instance, is an almost Borgesian tale, with a provincial Cuban ballpark standing in for the Argentine master's Library of Babel or Aleph. Over the years, a tobacco vendor, himself a failed player, comes to realize that “transformations dictated by his own will” can affect the outcome of games he can hear but not see from his kiosk in the bowels of the park. “What the stadium offered the old man were conclusions,” Arango writes. “He read the stadium, read the universe whose laws he had, for the moment, been able to unveil.” But like so much else in the old man’s life, this special skill does not bring him satisfaction or a happy ending.
Marcial Gala’s “The Pitcher,” on the other hand, is imbued with the same kind of existential angst that powered Peter Handke’s novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. Rarely has a writer captured so deftly the fear of failure and inherent drama of the so-called “game within the game,” the elemental confrontation of one man on the mound and another at the plate. “The batter is a cornered animal, and so am I,” Gala’s uneasy narrator muses to himself as he tries to shake off “the weight of the entire stadium on my shoulders” at yet another Cuban stadium. “If only they knew I’m not going to throw, I’m going to wait until the afternoon ends or someone calls the game.”
Not all of the stories work, of course; as in any anthology, there are both highs and lows. “A Notorious Home Run,” by Puerto Rico’s Cezanne Cardona Morales, offers us “the intersection of a genocide and a grand slam” in the form of Reba Kigali, a Rwandan-born centerfielder for the New York Yankees who gets a game-winning hit off Greg Maddux in the 1996 World Series. The story starts off implausibly, and though it contains some clever observations about the sport and its participants, it quickly goes off the rails and never gets back on track. Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro’s “Braces,” also from Puerto Rico, suffers from a different problem: though purporting to be a baseball story, its real concern is one young girl’s fluid gender identity and the sexual confusion of another. A baseball field is merely the pretext, one that is simultaneously flimsy and heavy-handed.
To fully appreciate Kill the Ámpaya, it obviously helps to be a baseball fan; if you don’t know who Roger Maris or Juan Marichal are, this is probably not a book for you. But specific knowledge of Latin American baseball is not a prerequisite, because Cluster’s very useful introductory essay helps acquaint monolingual North American fans with the history, idiosyncrasies and main personages of el béisbol. He has also seamlessly worked explanatory information into his translations, thanks to which we learn, for example, the importance of the Argentine-born radio announcer Buck Canel and the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports in spreading the popularity of baseball in Latin America from the 1930s onward.
More and more, baseball today is becoming an ever more internationalized game: roughly one-third of the players now in the major leagues were born outside the United States, and the countries represented in this anthology have been joined by several others as sources of players. Curação and Aruba, just off the coast of Venezuela, have recently emerged as hotbeds of talent, and currently there are even three big leaguers from Brazil (where Japanese immigrants, not Americans, introduced the game).
So, as much as I enjoyed this collection, I also look forward to the prospect of a sequel in which we hear the voices and stories of Japanese, Korean, Brazilian, Dutch and Taiwanese writers who also love the game. For the time being, however, perhaps the best assessment of this project comes in a back-cover blurb supplied by Omar Vizquel, the all-star Venezuelan shortstop and likely Hall of Famer. “These are stories we have lived,” he writes. “Some are funny, some cruel or violent, but in the end they are part of our culture that makes us act the way we do. They make me think of the millions of stories that got lost behind us.”
Larry Rohter spent 14 years in Brazil as a correspondent for The New York Times and Newsweek and is the author of Brazil on the Rise. He is currently writing a biography of the Brazilian explorer and statesman Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon. He is a fan of the World Series champion Chicago Cubs.