In a touch of iconoclastic ingenuity, Wendel builds on evidence of the youthful Fidel Castro's athletic prowess and pitching ability to construct an outstanding sports novel that also closely observes Cuban society and politics. In fact, he casts the Cuban dictator in what American sports lovers consider a heroic role: baseball player. The account opens in the present with septuagenarian Billy Bryan and his daughter, Cassy, arriving surreptitiously on the island. The trip is inspired by Cassy's discovery of a 1947 photo that shows her father, then an aging winter leaguer, in a friendly pose with a youthful Fidel. Flashbacks return Billy to the halcyon days of prerevolutionary Havana, when nightclubs, casinos, mobsters, prostitutes, secret police and baseball thrived in a nation on the brink of upheaval. Billy recalls his last season with the Havana Lions, and also his love affair with the beautiful Malena Fonseca, photographer of the revolution and friend to Castro. In possession of a phenomenal bender that flummoxes the best hitters, Castro has a future in the game that Billy himself, sadly, does not, and Billy is commissioned to sign and seal the promising star for the Washington Senators. Wendel's knowledge of baseball--the jargon, the players--enlivens the novel with some of the best game-action sequences in fiction. (The players' conversation, alas, lacks the casual profanity endemic to the sport, and thus is less credible than it might be.) Wendel also has a demonstrable feeling for Havana, then and now, and an understanding of the revolution and what it meant to both its leaders and its once hopeful, now hapless adherents. The love story, however, is a little too pat, focusing more on steamy looks, silly spats and lightweight sex than on powerful emotion. Castro comes off as an egocentric but not entirely bad fellow. But USA Today Baseball Weekly journalist Wendel (Going for the Gold) writes smooth, sometimes elegant prose, and his portrait of Cuba is multifaceted and intriguing. (Feb.) FYI: In an author's note, Wendel provides background about the youthful Castro's athletic prowess and his pitching ability.