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MOVIES | FILM CLIPS / CUBAN PLAYERS

Making a Pitch to Hollywood

October 18, 1998|Kevin Baxter | Kevin Baxter is a Times staff writer

In the last three years, Joe Cubas has evaded one of the world's most feared security forces, slipped past both the Mexican army and Mexican rebels, and stolen some of Cuba's most precious resources right out from the under the watchful eye of their caretakers. Or so Joe Cubas says.

And he says he's made so much money in the process, that in July Cubas--a sports agent by trade--headed an investment group that put together an ultimately unsuccessful $180-million offer to buy baseball's Florida Marlins.

If that sounds like a movie plot to you, you're not alone. Cubas entertained numerous movie offers before recently signing over the rights to his story to a team of four production companies whose members include Academy Award-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr., Antonio Banderas and producer Akiva Goldsman ("Batman & Robin").

A screenwriter is still being sought, but Gooding's Goodbro Productions, Banderas' Green Moon Productions, Goldsman's Weed Road Productions and Vanguard Films are all on board.

"It's going to happen very quickly," says a member of the production team. "There are several important directors who have come forward. It's attracting a lot of attention."

It's certainly a story rich in suspense and intrigue. Cubas' exploits on one of the last battlefields of the Cold War read like a John la Carre novel or a John Frankenheimer script, featuring midnight rendezvous, anonymous messengers and high-speed getaways. But since Cubas is a sports agent, not a secret agent, when he slipped past soldiers in Cuba he was searching not for politicians, but pitchers. And first basemen. And shortstops, outfielders, catchers--in short, anyone in Cuba with the ability to play baseball in the major leagues.

James Bond, meet Barry Bonds.

"It's more like a thriller than 'Jerry Maguire,' " says John Levin of Creative Artists Agency, which represents Banderas and Gooding. "It's a lot like 'Midnight Express.' It's not a traditional baseball story."

Although Cubas, 37, is little known nationally outside baseball circles, in the politically charged anti-Castro atmosphere of South Florida, he's a hero. Since the summer of 1995, Cubas has assisted in the defections of more than 20 Cuban baseball players, defections that have stung the communist regime.

For Fidel Castro "there's a big difference between a scientist and a baseball player," says Jose Basulto, founder of the Cuban American exile group Brothers to the Rescue. "A baseball player is a political tool. A political tool for the promotion of Cuba abroad."

Cubas' first client was pitcher Osvaldo Fernandez, who defected by simply walking out of the budget motel that housed the visiting Cuban team during a stay in Millington, Tenn.

The getaways grew more creative--and dangerous--after that. When teary-eyed pitcher Livan Hernandez tiptoed away from a touring Cuban national team near Monterrey, Mexico, for example, he stepped right into the path of a speeding car, which swerved just in time to avoid an accident. Months later, Cubas spirited three players away from another Cuban team in Mexico, then outfoxed both Cuban and Mexican officials by fleeing south through the war zones of Chiapas rather than north toward the U.S. border.

And finally there's the story of Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, the most successful pitcher in Cuban league history. In December, after sending word to Cubas through a baseball writer, Hernandez escaped Cuba on a raft, washing up on a tiny sun-drenched island in the Anguilla Cays.

Within days Cubas had secured a humanitarian visa for Hernandez to enter Costa Rica and within weeks he had negotiated a $6.6-million free-agent contract for him with the New York Yankees. And now, less than a year after leaving Cuba, Hernandez is pitching in the major league playoffs, just as half-brother Livan Hernandez did when he was named the most valuable player of last year's World Series after leading the Florida Marlins to the championship.

Orlando Hernandez's flight to freedom will be featured heavily in the movie, with Gooding playing the pitcher opposite Banderas' portrayal of Cubas.

The casting, however, is something of a reach: Cubas is a squat if solid man long known to the Cuban players as "el gordo" or "the fat man." With a thick mane of slicked-back hair, a neatly trimmed beard spotted with gray and intense brown eyes, Cubas looks more like Banderas' accountant than the actor himself.

Early rumors had the role going to Miami Cuban Andy Garcia, who is only a slightly better fit. But regardless of who plays the role, one part of the story the production team is likely to downplay is the Anaheim Angels' efforts to sign Hernandez. In the spring, the Angels, who are owned by Disney, dangled a three-year, $5-million contract plus a movie deal potentially worth millions more before Hernandez. But Cubas, who was quietly pursuing a film deal on his own, turned down the offer and urged Hernandez to sign with New York.

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