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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : THE Bat Man : He barely made it out of Cuba. Then he bet his life savings on crafting the hottest sticks in baseball. Life for Juan Faxas hasn't been boring.

August 13, 1995|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The crack of the bat, the sound that comes from squarely hitting a round ball with a round club, is perhaps the sweetest in all of sport.

But for Juan Faxas, once a scourge on the sandlots of Havana, it was the cracking of the bat that ruined his major league baseball debut.

That's because he no longer swings bats, but makes them. And for a bat maker, there's nothing worse than a hitter with a handful of splinters. Which is exactly what Dodger catcher Carlos Hernandez got when he tested Faxas' first batch of Glomar brand bats during a workout four years ago.

"I was shocked," Faxas recalls, "because I was so proud. It was my pride that hurt the most."

Yet even with so many bats broken, he was unbowed. After all, for someone who has survived 16 months in Cuban labor camps, it's hard to get too worked up over a pile of kindling.

Faxas simply ordered a new shipment of wood, returned to his garage workshop and came back with the prototype for a bat that, according to its maker, had found its way into the hands of more than 140 major leaguers before last season's strike.

"When I was growing up, if someone told me one day I'd be making bats for players in the major leagues, I wouldn't have believed it," Faxas says. "It would have been like a dream."

Living that dream would mean giving up a career as an electrical engineer, draining his life savings, and forcing family and friends to band together to keep the company's 3,800-square-foot Fullerton workshop running. Faxas, now 54, figures he's spent nearly $500,000 on the business so far and is still a long way from breaking even.

But money is not everything, he says.

"When you come through an experience like [the camps], you really value some other things. And when things get tough, when I think I have it hard, I just reach back and pull out a memory."

*

Most all the furnishings in Faxas' modest home, hard against the Pomona Freeway in Diamond Bar, originated in a tiny garage workshop.

"Since I was a little kid, I have been working with wood," Faxas says between draws on the latest in a series of Pall Malls. "My father was the one that taught me. That was his hobby too."

That and baseball.

It was the golden era of professional baseball in Cuba, when Havana was home to a minor-league affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds and the center of the world's top winter-league circuit. But all that changed after Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

One of the new regime's first decrees outlawed professional sports on the island, chasing the Reds back to the mainland. But Faxas had little time to mourn. Under another decree, the produce business he shared with his uncle was seized by the government.

"They told us, 'Now it belongs to the people,' " Faxas recalls. "What the hell were we? We were people too."

Forced to pick a new career, Faxas soon found himself in a high school classroom giving lessons in math and physics. Again, he ran afoul of the authorities, who banished him to the industrial arts department.

"In mathematics and physics there was too much pressure from the Communists. Everything had to relate to the revolution. Every mathematics problem was based on the revolution. And you were missing the real thing," he recalls.

Nevertheless, Faxas counts his five teaching years as his most fulfilling.

"That's the biggest satisfaction that you can get," he says. "When you get a bunch of kids and you go with them through a year and at the end of the year you know that they are prepared to go to the next step . . . you are doing something for humanity."

There was little satisfaction elsewhere. Faced with severe shortages of food and other goods, Eugenia Faxas, whom Juan had married just months after Castro's triumph, put the same meat bone in a pot of boiling water day after day and called it soup.

Making such sacrifices for a political system they did not believe in became unbearable.

"You got to a point down there that your life means nothing," Juan Faxas says. "Believe me. I got to that point. I felt I was better off dead than living over there."

But then the couple received the first good news in years: Eugenia and the children would be allowed to immigrate to the United States, where relatives had settled.

Juan, however, was denied permission to leave. So, on Christmas Eve in 1967, 5-year-old Juan Carlos and Brenhilde, 2, kissed their father goodby for what everyone believed would be the last time.

"That was hard," Faxas says, the emotions welling up anew. "That was one of the hardest decisions that I made in my life. I knew I was going [to be jailed]. But that was the least of my problems."

Just as Faxas expected, he had little time to reflect on his loss. A telegram soon arrived ordering him to pack a small bag and report to a nearby park. From there, he and others were taken to a work camp. The men understood that this was the price they had to pay for their families' freedom.

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