`Castro': Not Quite A Fast Pitch

------------------------------- "Castro's Curveball" by Tim Wendel Ballantine, $23.95 -------------------------------

The rumors won't go away. Did Fidel Castro, some 10 years before he rode triumphantly into Havana, try out with the Washington Senators baseball team? Was he any good? Why didn't he make the squad? "Baseball Weekly" correspondent Tim Wendel, in his first novel, constructs possible answers to these questions.

The year is 1947 and Billy Bryan, a thirtyish, career minor leaguer, is struggling in winter ball in Cuba. One evening demonstrators from the University of Havana spill out of the bleachers and interrupt the game. They let off firecrackers and parade around with banners denouncing the current regime. One demonstrator (Castro, of course) takes the mound and shows off for his friends. Bryan, the catcher, tired of their antics, rolls the ball to him. What does the kid show him? In the melodramatic terms of the novel: the best curveball he's ever seen.

The novel quickly turns, though, from the struggle to sign this flighty, flaky, would-be revolutionary into a love story between Bryan and Malena, one of Castro's comrades. Castro, the nominal reason for the novel, winds up playing the role he's played in U.S. politics for the last 40 years: pest. He shows up when we least want him to; when things are just getting cozy.

The love story is surprisingly effective and Wendel knows his baseball; but the writing should be tighter, more evocative. Castro may have had a great curveball, but Wendel's doesn't quite break.