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Sunday, December 1, 2013

VIVA BASEBALL! -- movie review by porfle

(NOTE: This review originally appeared at in 2006.)

One of our most enduring images is that of a group of scuffy kids playing baseball in a vacant lot, sometimes using whatever is available to them in place of actual balls and bats, because their love for the game compels them to play it.

In Dan Klores' documentary VIVA BASEBALL! (2005), narrated by Marc Anthony, we are shown how pervasive this love for baseball has been in the lives of Latinos in the Americas and the Caribbean since the late 1800's, and what it was like for those good enough to come to the United States and try to make it into the major leagues despite obstacles such as racism and political turmoil back home.

In one of his interview segments, legendary Cuban pitcher Luis Tiant, Jr. spells out his goal as a young player: "I'm gonna show you I can do the same thing as everybody out here--white, black, African, Chinese--whatever."

The problem for some, however, was getting a chance to do this in an era when black players weren't allowed in the major leagues regardless of their abilities. When pitcher Luis Tiant, Sr. shut out a group of Major Leaguers visiting Cuba, striking out Babe Ruth, USA teams started importing white Cuban players. But Tiant, one of the greatest pitchers of all time, was black, and thus never got a chance to pitch in the major leagues.

The interview segments with old-timers like Rod Carew, Tony Perez, Vic Power, "Minnie" Minosa, and Orlando Cepada, along with more recent stars such as Keith Hernandez, Alex Rodriguez, and Carlos Beltran, are consistently interesting and informative, and often emotional as well.

The last thing I expected when watching this movie was to be moved to tears, but sure enough, the story of superstar Roberto Clemente's death in a plane crash while rushing to aid Nicaraguans after a catastrophic earthquake, as related by his wife, family, and fellow players, almost had me reaching for the Kleenex, as did Luis Tiant, Jr.'s account of his long struggle to get his parents out of Cuba. When they were finally allowed to leave, they got to see their son pitch against the Cincinatti Reds in the World Series. Not long afterward, though, they died within days of each other.

Interwoven with the interviews is a wealth of photographs and archival footage that keeps things visually interesting throughout, covering the early days, the mid-period when integration in baseball began to slowly and torturously take hold, and the latter days leading all the way up to Sammy Sosa being honored by the President during his State Of The Union address. Douglas J. Cuomo's fine musical score is augmented by dozens of songs by such artists as Xavier Cugat, Count Basie, and Santana, helping to bring to life the flavor of each time period.

There isn't a single lull or boring spot in VIVA BASEBALL! because there's an endless parade of fascinating stories to present. Although the racism faced by the early Latino players is a major focus, the main thing that comes through, which director Dan Klores and writer Charles C. Stuart have captured beautifully, is the undying and all-encompassing love for the game of baseball that is felt by these great players.

As Mets General Manager Omar Minaya puts it: "We were born with baseball in our blood. It's more than just a sport--it's a passion, it's an opera, it is just a way of life, a way of being. It's almost's like breathing."

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