THE BLOG
11/22/2016 06:15 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2017

Juan Bobo tells their story

In 2016, the Latino MVP Award celebrated its 26th year as the most prestigious award given to Latino Baseball Players in the US. Every year, the winners are selected by the Latino Sports Writers and Broadcasters Association (LSWBA).

I founded the Latino MVP Award in 1990. I also founded Latino Sports Ventures and LatinoSports.com. I have written about baseball in the New York Times, El Diario - La Prensa and hosted the first bilingual radio sports show, La Hora Deportiva on WXLX-AM. I even built a bed-and-breakfast a few blocks from Yankee Stadium that is filled with portraits of Roberto Clemente, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and an entire room dedicated to 100 years of Yankee history.

I know a little about baseball...and just recently, I read one of the finest baseball novels ever written. It is called Juan Bobo.

The title character is the best-known folkloric figure in Puerto Rico: Juan Bobo is a trickster and a rogue, the star of hundreds of children's books, comics and plays, many of which pre-date the US arrival in 1898. But this is an "adult" Juan Bobo - the manager of the Criollos de Caguas baseball team, who is also the most famous ghost-hunter in Puerto Rico.
Juan Bobo hates doctors and pharmaceutical companies: "As far as Juan was concerned, anyone who worked in Big Pharma was a thief...unless of course, they paid him $500 to chase a ghost out of their house."

He has no use for politicians: "Both political parties did nothing but stuff their pockets. For eighty years they'd robbed and betrayed their own people, and someday the picnic would end. Until that day arrived, Juan wasn't voting for anyone.

The one thing he loves is beisbol...and after 621 innings, he leads his rag-tag team (with an alcoholic pitcher and kleptomaniac third baseman) to win the longest game in the history of professional baseball.

Juan Bobo is a subversive book, because it is so damned entertaining. With undertones of Ring Lardner (You Know Me Al), Bernard Malamud (The Natural) and W.P. Kinsella (The Iowa Baseball Confederacy), Juan Bobo manages to weave sport, culture, Damon Runyon characters, and Caribbean politics into an edgy and propulsive narrative. Quietly, almost subliminally, the reader encounters a turbulent history of US - Puerto Rico relations, as seen and felt by the Puerto Ricans themselves.

This historical dimension is no accident. The author, Nelson Denis, recently published War Against All Puerto Ricans...a blistering exposé which in the words of one reviewer, provided "detailed accounts of government corruption, police abuse, Wall Street greed, scientific experimentation, politicking, graft, racism, wholesale slaughter, surveillance, assassinations, eugenics, propaganda, espionage, forgery and falsification -- all within the span of half a century, and on an island no bigger than Connecticut."

Published last year (Nation Books, 2015) War Against All Puerto Ricans was the best-selling book in Puerto Rico in 2015-16, where it outsold Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It was also a #1 Amazon Best Seller for over a year. Denis evidently touched a nerve on the island of Puerto Rico.
The story and symbolism of Juan Bobo will touch that nerve again.

With terrifying exorcisms, headless brides, crooked ballplayers, El Brujo de Guayama, a corpse that runs for the State Senate, and a CIA chase through Washington Heights, Juan Bobo delivers enough thrills and humor for a movie franchise. One can easily envision John Leguizamo, Lin-Manuel Miranda or Luis Guzmán as the new, adult Juan Bobo.

But the sensibility of Denis' previous book adds another dimension to Juan Bobo. In the end, it is the historical and cultural detail, the tight blend of fact and fiction, and the angry conscience behind it all, which lifts Juan Bobo from crafty entertainment to the chronicle of an island, and of a people, that have been sadly ignored. This sadness is conveyed by Juan Bobo himself, during a quiet moment, when he says: "Puerto Rican eyes are all dark, with lots of yesterdays in them."

Next year, 2017, will mark the 100th anniversary of Puerto Ricans as "citizens" of the United States. Juan Bobo tells their story.
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