This article was originally published in Washington Jewish Week.
My 9-year old grandson Matan is a very serious baseball fan. I have to study the box scores carefully during the season just to keep up with him, but still he knows everything I know and more.
So it was not surprising last summer that we both took note of Yasiel Puig, a 22-year old rookie from Cuba who hit the big leagues like a bolt of lightning. When he played his first game for the Dodgers on June 3, the team was in last place in its division. Yet he quickly turned things around, getting 44 hits in his first month (including seven home runs), more than anyone since Joe DiMaggio had 48 hits in the first month of his rookie year, back in 1936.
Veteran announcer Vince Scully called Puig “the Wild Horse” because of the passion he brought to every aspect of the game, from his powerful bat to his aggressive base running to his ability to throw out runners from deep right-field without hitting the cutoff man. Manager Don Mattingly credited Puig’s infectious energy with igniting a hot streak that catapulted the Dodgers into first place in their division.
It’s hard to imagine that just a little more than a year before Puig’s astonishing arrival to the big leagues, he and a dozen others attempting to escape from Cuba in a small boat were picked by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and held onboard for two weeks, after which they were returned to the island. It wasn’t the first time Puig had tried to escape, and it wouldn’t be the last. Less than two months later, he escaped again, this time to Mexico, at which point the Dodgers — to the disbelief of many in the baseball world — offered him a seven-year, $42 million contract. It turned out to be a steal.
Since I know a lot of people in the Cuban exile community from my democracy work, I told Matan that I would try to get him a baseball signed by Puig. It was more difficult than I thought since a lot of activists don’t follow baseball. One told me that he might be able to get a ball signed by another famous Cuban player, Yoenis Cespedes of the Oakland Athletics, who had won the home run derby before last summer’s All Star Game in New York. Matan accepted that, but he still had his heart set on Puig.
Then, suddenly, my luck changed. Unbeknown to me, a colleague at NED who knew of my search contacted Pablo Diaz in Spain, the editor of Diario de Cuba (a NED-supported exile publication), who had escaped from Cuba two decades ago and in 2009 had helped facilitate the defection of Aroldis Chapman, now the ace closer for the Cincinnati Reds who has been nicknamed “the Cuban missile” because of his overpowering fast ball. (Chapman has thrown a pitch clocked at 106 mph, the fastest ever recorded in Major League history.) Diaz immediately contacted Luis David Fuentes, a childhood friend and fellow baseball fanatic who is now a leader of the small but growing Cuban community in Kentucky whose entrepreneurial energy is on display in a monthly magazine he edits called El Kentubano. I had no idea that there even was a Cuban community in Kentucky.
By coincidence, Fuentes had driven to Cincinnati in early September when the Dodgers were in town to play the Reds, and he had been invited to Chapman’s house after the game where he met Puig and had gotten him to sign some baseballs to remember the occasion. So he already had a Puig-signed ball and happily agreed to send it to NED, where it arrived just days before Thanksgiving.
Gifts are generally not given on Thanksgiving, but this year — for the first time in more than a century — the holiday coincided with the first day of Chanukah, when gifts are traditionally given to children. So Thanksgivukkah, as some have called it, was an appropriate occasion to give the ball to Matan, and it was also an occasion that had symbolic significance for this particular gift.
Chanukah, which celebrates the successful Jewish uprising in 167 BCE against the oppressive Syrian monarch Antiochus, has obvious relevance to Cubans who oppose the Castro dictatorship. The holiday also celebrates a miracle — that a cruse of olive oil sufficient to light the menorah in the liberated Temple for a single day lasted for eight days until a new supply of ritually permitted oil could be prepared.
Puig’s remarkable story is also a kind of miracle, though it is not fundamentally different from that of other Cubans who have rebuilt their lives in exile and recovered their dignity in a free society. The fact that America, with all its troubles, remains a society that can give people such an opportunity is also a miracle — and a reason to give thanks.
Carl Gershman is President of the National Endowment for Democracy.