Fidel and Me

It's a curiosity, a conversation piece, a memento. It's also evidence that the lives of ordinary people can intersect with the famous and powerful in peculiar ways.

It is not a pre-signed, mail-order baseball. Nor did I purchase it at a sports-memorabilia show. It was given to me fresh from a Havana factory. Within 24 hours, I'd handed it to Fidel Castro Ruz, president of Cuba, and he'd autographed it.

Here's how it happened:

In 1987, civic leaders in Indianapolis dispatched sports officials to Havana to pave the way for Cuba's participation in the 10th Pan American Games, hosted by the Hoosier capital. I was among about a dozen journalists invited to tag along.

From the start, there was a "Twilight Zone" quality to this trip. The chartered plane we flew from Miami - a 1942-vintage DC-3 -was right out of an Indiana Jones movie. It seemed to take forever to reach Havana, presumably because we had to avoid flying over sensitive military bases.

Castro's regime does not place much importance on bourgeois amenities. We stayed in the Habana Libre, a five-star hotel in its heyday, decades ago. My room came complete with rusty soap dish, eight-year-old phone book, and a spectacular balcony view of the harbor. One catch: The sliding-glass doors to the balcony were broken. I couldn't open them more than a couple of inches.

For several days we toured sports facilities, met high-ranking sports officials and world-class athletes, chatted with Cuban journalists rumored to be spies, took in a spectacular floor show at an open-air nightclub, and attended a pro baseball game.

Soon, it was our last, balmy night in Havana. Word spread that Castro might make an appearance at a farewell dinner for the Americans. We took our freshly minted baseballs just in case. Castro loves to talk baseball, and as a teenage pitcher was given an opportunity to face a few visiting American major-league batters. (Joe DiMaggio, a reticent autograph-giver, recently sent Castro a ball with his signature, an item that Castro reportedly sought.)

It grew late. Then, through the inky blue night, word spread quickly: Castro would grant us a private audience!

We hurriedly boarded buses. My scribbled notes say we were taken to the Palace of the Revolution. It looked more like a fancy office building than a mansion.

The Pan Am delegation disappeared down the hall to meet Castro. We reporters were whisked into a holding pen, a conference room of some sort. We were told to wait. How long, no one said.

After an hour of chitchat and trying to decipher notes left on a blackboard, we were escorted into the reception hall. It was past midnight. Castro was wearing his familiar olive-drab army uniform, holding forth in a windowless, high-ceilinged reception room that could have passed for a 1950s-era hotel lobby - austere with a hint of elegance in the form of scattered furnishings.

Could this really be happening? Could one of the biggest thorns in America's foreign relations really be moving in my direction, steered by his handlers and a visitor liaison?

I was the first to be introduced. I knew that despite my normal aversion to collecting autographs, I would kick myself later if I didn't ask for one this time. It was apparent that this would be assembly-line socializing, with no meaningful exchange. So I shamelessly -if sheepishly - took the Cuban-made baseball from my coat pocket and extended it to the dictator. No small talk; right to the point, which meant a simple request for his John Hancock.

THIS brought laughs from the other guests and a weak smile from Castro, who would now be asked to accommodate another round of signings. He'd already autographed baseballs for his first wave of Yanqui guests.

He did so. He was gracious, if not enthusiastic. Then, with a translator at his side, he proceeded to ramble on about conditions in Cuba. We stood by, trying to look attentive. The catches of the night, after all, were the autographed baseballs now bulging in our jacket pockets.

Occasionally I retrieve it from a dark recess of my desk at home, just to prove that I once found myself in such unimaginable company.

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