THE NAME FLUNG from the ballpark's public-address system like a hanging curveball.
"Now batting, the center fielder … Fidel Castro.”
On a “Silver Sluggers” night at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium in Jupiter, it didn’t take long for a few old hecklers to connect.
“Is Che Guevara on deck?”
Welcome to the world of Fidel Andres Perez Castro, a minor league baseball player with the Cincinnati Reds’ Class A Daytona Tortugas, who in the view of many gringos has the misfortune of sharing the same name as the late and loathed Cuban despot.
But if you’re 23 and have a limited command of the English language, not to mention only a vague idea of who Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was, the heckling might as well sound like cheers.
Daytona Tortugas center-fielder Fidel Castro is not related to the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro (Newspapers.com, Aldrin Capulong)
“I first heard it in (Port) St. Lucie,’’ he said the other day in an interview translated from Spanish by Tortugas outfield coach Jefry Sierra. A teammate “was telling me about it, but I didn't pay attention because I didn't know what he was talking about.’’
The Florida State League’s Fidel Castro has never even been to Cuba. He was born in the Dominican Republic on the day after Christmas in 1998. His mother gave him the first name of his father, Fidel Perez. For his surname, she gave him hers, Castro.
In Latin American countries, it’s common for children to take the surnames of both their father and mother, respectively, instead of the traditional way it’s done in the United States, where newborns take their father’s surname, said Sierra, who is from the Dominican Republic.
He could just go by his middle name, Andres, as many on social media have suggested. But he likes Fidel.
“It's one of those things that happened,’’ said Castro, who was signed by the Reds as an international free agent on May 30, 2016, about six months before dictator Fidel Castro died.
“I (only) knew who (Cuba’s) Fidel Castro was when I started playing baseball. Then everybody around started telling me who he was. I have some friends whose parents are from Cuba. They told me he wasn't good at all.’’
Daytona’s Fidel Castro knows his name is just a family name — and a common one in many countries. He also understands he will be a curiosity wherever he goes in Florida, prompting doubletakes from fans at the ballpark when his name is announced and from waiters in restaurants after he hands them his credit card.
“I love Fidel,’’ said Justin Rocke, the Tortugas’ play-by-play broadcaster and media relations coordinator. “He has a great awareness of himself. I think he understands that he's got a name that definitely turn some heads around these parts.’’
Tortugas outfield Jefry Sierra talks with Fidel Castro before a game in July at Jackie Robinson Park in Daytona (Joe Capozzi)
He’s certainly not the first baseball player to share a famous — or infamous — name.
Davey Crockett played first base for the 1901 Detroit Tigers. Starting in 1904, right-hander Kaiser Wilhelm lost 20-plus games for three consecutive seasons with the Boston Beaneaters and Brooklyn Superbas.
While Cuba’s Castro was a passionate baseball fan, he was never considered a Major League Baseball prospect, contrary to a long-standing myth that he once tried out for the New York Yankees. He did pitch in a charity game in Havana in 1959.
In 2002, a Kennedy (Tampa Bay’s Joe) pitched to a Castro (Florida’s Ramon). But until recently, there has never been a Fidel Castro on a baseball field in the United States.
In South Florida, especially Miami, the name Fidel Castro is a sensitive one, as Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen learned in 2012. “I Love Fidel Castro,’’ he told TIME magazine, sparking outrage in Miami’s Cuban-American community.
Guillen was suspended for five games, apologized and said he meant that he “respected” Castro because he’d managed to stay in power for so long.
Did the Cincinnati Reds have any internal discussions about the sensitivities of their Fidel Castro’s name when they signed him?
Is the team concerned about possible negative reactions from fans if he ever plays in Miami or in communities with large Cuban-American populations?
Team officials in Cincinnati, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.
So far, the reaction from fans around the Florida State League has been generally positive.
"The way he has handled himself has been so impressive,'' Tortugas broadcaster Justin Rocke (R) said about center-fielder Fidel Castro. (Joe Capozzi)
“There were definitely some moments where you're curious to see what the reaction is going to be like and what will be the audible reaction to the crowd the first time the PA made the announcement, ‘Now batting … Fidel Castro,’’’ said Rocke, the Daytona media relations coordinator.
“But our fans have gotten extremely behind him. ‘Let’s go, Castro!’ The way the fans have accepted him, despite the connotations with his name, and the way he has handled himself has been so impressive. We are thrilled and very lucky to have him here.’’
Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, home to the Hammerheads and Cardinals, is at the north end of the Miami metropolitan area, which includes Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties and has the largest Cuban-American population in the United States. The area’s largest concentration of Cuban Americans is in Miami-Dade, about 80 miles south of Jupiter.
Although there were scattered Castro heckles June 29 at the “Silver Sluggers” senior citizens discount game in Jupiter, there were also fans who didn’t appreciate the banter. A woman behind home plate scolded her husband (“That’s not nice!”) after he yelled “Revolution!”
“Every time he batted there were different insults being hurled. ‘Change your name to Raul!’ What a terrible name!’’’ said Toby Srebnik, a public relations manager, who attended the Jupiter game with his son.
“When you are a baseball player on the road, you're going to get heckled. In this case, he has a name that is naturally gonna get him heckled. I feel genuinely bad for the player because it can't be easy with that name in the world. He doesn’t deserve that. But it did not seem like he let it get to him.’’
Maybe it was a language barrier.
Or maybe he was just happy to get recognition at the Class A level.
Fidel Castro (L) and Jefry Sierra (Joe Capozzi)
When he was first heckled in Port St. Lucie in early June, he responded with a home run, his first hit for the Tortugas. A few days later, Barstool Sports noted his infamous name in a blog, which Castro gleefully tweeted.
Among the comments under the post: “He hit that all the way to the Bay of Pigs.’’ And, “The only way this gets weirder is if Adolf Hitler was the pitcher.’’
“You wonder, ‘How is he going to handle all of the comments?’’’ Rocke said, “and it just seemed like he interpreted it as, ‘Cool! People are sharing highlights of me playing baseball.’ That says a lot about how he has handled everything.’’
When Castro hit his second home run, Rocke tweeted the news with emojis of rocket missiles. Castro retweeted that one, too.
But on the “Silver Sluggers” night last month against the Palm Beach Cardinals, mighty Castro struck out three times.
Relaxing the other day after pre-game practice at Daytona’s Jackie Robinson Park, Castro smiled often during an interview and didn’t seem at all bothered with questions about his name.
Off the field, he said, he likes to play video games and stay in touch with his relatives in the Dominican Republic via phone and internet.
A left-handed hitter, Castro said his swing is similar to the swing of Robinson Cano, one of his favorite players. He also admired Bobby Abreu, who retired after the 2014 season.
"My main goal is to enjoy every day,'' said Daytona Tortugas outfielder Fidel Castro. (Photo by Aldrin Capulong)
Over his first 31 games this year, Castro is batting .227 with 4 homers and 9 RBI and 42 strikeouts in 88 at-bats.
He said he knows he has to improve all parts of his game if he wants to reach the major leagues. And if that day comes, he understands he probably won’t get the warmest reception when he plays at Marlins Park in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.
“I might hear the fans. They might boo,’’ he said. “But I won't listen to that because I have nothing to do with (Cuban Fidel Castro). My main goal is to enjoy every day. And if I get to the big leagues, I’ll do my best for the fans.’’
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020.View all posts by Joe Capozzi.