Skip to content

The Championship for the Reelection of the General (The Atavist Magazine)

In 1937, some of the most famous baseball players who ever lived–all black and relegated to the then-segregated Negro Leagues–got fed up with American racism and took advantage of one of the strangest offers they’d ever know. The dictator of the Dominican Republic, easily one of the most dangerous (and racist) men of the era, was sponsoring a baseball tournament in his own honor. And he wanted the best players money could buy. This is the story of what happened when 17 stars flew down to the DR to play for a man named Rafael Trujillo. In the process, they caused a major diplomatic scandal; almost drove black baseball out of business; and cemented some of the legends we all grew up with.

Read my story in Issue 57 of The Atavist Magazine

A special thanks to some sources who were indispensable to the research of this story. Orlando Inoa, the Dominican historian and publisher of Letra Gráfica, is quite simply one of the most knowledgeable historians and documentarians around; without him, the story would have been impossible to tell. Salvador Alfau, at the National Archives in Santo Domingo, was extremely generous. Rob Ruck, of the University of Pittsburgh, has written brilliantly about baseball in the DR, and it was an honor to confer with him along the way. I can’t do justice here to Cuqui Córdova, and he makes a cameo in the story itself. Thank you: José A. Vega Imbert, Layton Revel, Luis Muñoz, Freddy Gómez, Frank Moya Pons, Robin Derby,  Roberto Echevarría, Larry Lester, Larry Tye, and Neil Lanctot. The list goes on.

Advertisements

Crossing Over (Oxford American, Fall 2015)

En route last year from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, once the most dangerous city on earth, Claudia Delfin crossed the border in fear over what she’d find on the other side, but the real trouble was in coming back. After spending a few jittery hours in Mexico, she waited among the throng at customs on the Santa Fe Street Bridge while her Juárez nerves slowly stopped jangling. A uniformed officer called her over to his booth, barely making eye contact. He cut an authoritarian bust behind his desk, just upper torso visible on a boosted chair. She held out her Texas state ID and a tattered birth certificate. Both documents said Ricardo, not Claudia—and the ID, when plugged into the computer, called up a long list of prison stints. Claudia is thin and gangly, five feet seven inches, with dark skin, a broad nose, and deep-set brown eyes. Her smile is a few teeth shy of being pristine—metal caps top her canines, and flash when she talks. Two tattoos in a loopy scrawl spill over the tops of her hands, and another spiders around the nape of her neck. 

The questions followed, one after the other, the pace quickening. Where do you work? Do you have drugs? Who were you there to see? There was too much story to get through, and Claudia’s voice snagged and wavered, her answers spilling out in a jumble. She’s transgender, and never changed the name on her ID; the priors were for old offenses (drugs, prostitution, theft); she was visiting friends, and has a godson on the other side. The officer stepped down from his perch and led her into a side room with white cinder-block walls; jack-booted patrolmen clomped in and out. She stood by while they figured out what to do with her. Eventually, they propped Claudia against a wall and two teams, working in pairs, set in on her. The female officers went first, patting her down from the waist up with gloved hands, latex against the skin. They toyed with her bra, tilting it to see if drugs fell out. Then the men took over. They felt from the waist down, holding firm hands to her inner thighs and grazing against her penis for contraband. After fifteen minutes, they returned an uneaten burrito she’d been carrying in her purse, and she was free to go. 

It was the first time Claudia had gone to Juárez in more than a decade. She was forty-five, and began crossing into the city in her teens. El Paso and Juárez are sibling cities, joined together in a single metropolitan hub, with families, businesses, and communities enmeshed across both sides. Claudia’s trips used to be routine, practically second nature, but she stopped going around 2000, when the killings picked up. Women had been disappearing in Juárez throughout the Nineties in an epidemic of rapes and murders. Most of the victims belonged to a swelling urban underclass; they were low-wage laborers picked off on their way home from work on secluded patches of desert road. NAFTA had been pushing Mexico’s poorest citizens up from the interior and into the factories along the northern corridor, where they converged on a turf war fought by the cartels. Drug violence took Claudia’s two cities, gutted one and sealed up the other. In 2010, there were more than three thousand murders in Juárez alone, while in El Paso there were all of five. The gore and terror sharpened the dividing line itself. To come home to El Paso from the south raised more questions than could easily be answered, and so for twenty minutes Claudia was marooned on a bridge, in fronteriza limbo.

Keep reading: http://www.oxfordamerican.org/magazine/item/663-crossing-over

The Dominican Diamond Expert (The New York Times)

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Ever since Pedro Martinez entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in July, Emilio Cordova, the Dominican Republic’s most celebrated baseball historian, has been carrying copies of stat sheets with him all over town. On one side of the pages are Martinez’s career numbers; on the other are those of Juan Marichal, the country’s other legendary pitcher.

“Everyone keeps asking me who was better,” said Cordova, who is known as Cuqui. “It’s driving me crazy!”

He reels off the statistics — complete games, shutouts, earned run average — as if they are an unshakable tic.

“People who never saw Marichal pitch are saying, ‘I like Pedro more; he was better,’ ” Cordova said. “Not true! Look at the numbers.”

He knows most of them by heart. In the Dominican Republic, Cordova, 85, is known as the “immortal sports historian,” a living, breathing archive of Dominican baseball. (His memorabilia-filled home is the related brick-and-mortar version.) Always impeccably dressed, in a blazer complete with a pocket square and suspenders, Cordova is as dapper as he is gentlemanly, an authentic caballero of the old school. But it is what is inside that natty package, the information he shares in his many books and newspaper columns, that makes him a national treasure.

Keep reading: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/sports/baseball/emilio-cordova-the-dominican-diamond-expert.html

Phone-a-Frog (The New Yorker)

The ecologist Jeremy Feinberg, who discovered a new species of frog on Staten Island recently, counts himself among New York’s “quirk celebrities.” Friends call to tell him about shout-outs on “The Daily Show” or “The Leonard Lopate Show,” but he knows who’s really being fêted. “It’s never about me,” he said. “It’s all about the frog,” the second new species found in North America since 1986. Feinberg was out in the marshes off the Staten Island Expressway one day when he heard a gurgling noise. “It sounded like the word ‘chuck,’ ” he said. Other naturalists had also been hearing the call, but Feinberg and his team were the first to put a name to the species with the outer-borough accent. Last year, they anointed it the Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog, in a journal article titled “Cryptic Diversity in Metropolis.”

On a Saturday night last month, Feinberg walked along the fringes of a cemetery on Arthur Kill Road, wearing cargo pants held together by duct tape and a T-shirt with a picture of an open-jawed crocodile. The frogs mate for three weeks each April, and are at their loudest while cavorting. It’s a chance for Feinberg to listen in and try to chart new populations. “Let’s get a sneak peek into another orgy,” he said, cupping his hands behind his ears. The frog bacchanal meant yet another roving date night for Feinberg and his girlfriend, Stephanie Jennings, an urban planner who often joins him in the field during mating season. “It’s how we spend our Saturday nights,” she said, decked out in hiking boots and a mackintosh. They wended their way among the headstones and came to a rusted fence, behind which was a secluded pond. “We might be borderline trespassing,” Feinberg said, craning his neck to listen. “His ears go farther than most,” Jennings pointed out. A frog chorus reverberated in the distance. “Those are peepers,” Feinberg said, of the frog that was drowning out the others. “It’s like a rock concert. Their decibels are through the roof.”

Keep reading: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/25/frog-phone

Alberto Nisman’s Death Exposes Tainted Justice System (Al-Jazeera America)

Thousands of people took to the streets of Buenos Aires on Wednesday to participate in a silent march in solidarity with Alberto Nisman, the Argentine prosecutor who accused the government of a massive cover-up last month and turned up dead just before he was supposed to testify before Congress a few days later.

The circumstances of his death were mysterious and remain so. Earlier this month, forensic experts found the DNA of another, as-yet unidentified person in Nisman’s apartment, where he apparently committed suicide on Jan. 18. Last week another federal prosecutor said there were legitimate grounds to investigate Nisman’s allegations that the president and her foreign minister conspired with Iran to protect suspects in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.

Since so little is known about the nature of Nisman’s death — and, for that matter, the validity of his accusations against the government — Wednesday’s march has given rise to all manner of insinuation about what, exactly, is motivating demonstrators. The government has accused them of plotting to destabilize the state. And others are calling the march an electoral campaign in a swipe at opposition politicians and government figures who are looking to brand (or rebrand) themselves in the run-up to the presidential election later this year.

At the center of the debate both about the march and what Nisman’s death portends for Argentina is a group of prosecutors who worked alongside Nisman in the Public Ministry and are organizing the demonstrations. They have disavowed any political agenda, even if by marching they’re implicitly criticizing the government.

Keep reading: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/2/18/prosecutors-death-exposes-argentinas-tainted-justice-system.html

Argentina Debates Intelligence Reform (Al-Jazeera America)

One week after the mysterious death of a state prosecutor who had accused the government of a major crime, the president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, announced one of her government’s most sweeping policy reforms to date. She wants to dissolve the country’s Intelligence Secretariat (SI) and replace it with a new organization. Lawmakers and advocates have been trying for years to overhaul Argentina’s intelligence services but could never buck the entrenched institutional order. Now that the president is involved, the government has called for a special session of Congress to debate her proposal, and a Senate vote is expected Thursday.

Opposition parties, however, have refused to attend hearings on the law and vow to boycott the vote; they have decried the reform effort as the self-serving project of a beleaguered president. “The government is proposing a change in name only,” said Manuel Garrido, a congressman from Buenos Aires. “All the government’s doing is taking attention away from the Alberto Nisman case,” he added, in reference to the dead prosecutor.

Last month Nisman accused the president and her foreign minister of covering up a recent government agreement struck with Iran to protect suspects in a 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. The perpetrators of the attack have never been brought to justice, and state-led investigations have crumbled because judges and prosecutors with close ties to the intelligence community have repeatedly been charged with corruption.

Keep reading: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/2/11/argentina-votes-on-sweeping-intelligence-reform-after-prosecutors-death.html

Elementary (The New Yorker)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar walked through the lobby of his hotel on Central Park South recently, doing his best impression of someone with a low profile. He swerved to avoid a chandelier (low clearance for a former N.B.A. center), then bumped into an old friend who’d been a coach with the Chicago Bulls. Handshakes, camera flashes. Finally, Abdul-Jabbar wriggled free. “I have somewhere to be,” he said, adjusting a white cashmere scarf over his blue pin-striped suit. He ducked through a doorway, took a few loping steps to the curb, and scrunched into the back of a black Suburban.

He was late for cocktails at the Yale Club, where the Baker Street Irregulars, an eighty-one-year-old Sherlock Holmes society, was hosting its annual dinner. Abdul-Jabbar—a Sherlockian since he began reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks, in 1969—was making his inaugural appearance. Earlier that week, Abdul-Jabbar had announced that he would soon publish his first novel, “Mycroft Holmes,” a thriller about Sherlock Holmes’s older brother. Conan Doyle’s Mycroft is old and haggard, “world-weary,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “We want to see how he was before he took his lumps from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

The car crept through midtown, and Abdul-Jabbar said, “I’m curious just to see who these people are.” He did an impression of Jonny Lee Miller, the latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, on the CBS show “Elementary.” “I am not a nice man. I am acerbic. I get things done in my style,” he said, in a plummy English accent.

Keep reading: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/02/elementary