The Baltimore Orioles of the American League made a preseason appearance in Havana in March 1999, the first time in 38 years that a baseball team from the U.S. had set foot on Cuban soil. While the event was treated as a curiosity and a political olive branch by the Stateside media, “Grass Is Greener” is told from Cuba’s p.o.v., showing the competition as a victory of one social system over another.
Baseball’s role in Cuban history is far more than a national pastime — it’s practically a religion, as “Grass Is Greener” so smoothly spells out.
“In Cuba, you don’t talk about baseball, you argue,” one observer notes, and indeed the subject of the Cuba-Orioles game fires up a fierce debate in a public park. Glimpses into the state of baseball in Cuba give “Grass Is Greener” its wonderful timeliness; the observations and file footage show a love affair between sport and country that’s a joy to behold.
Hourlong doc covers more than a century, starting with the formation in 1878 of the first Cuban League and ending with the Jan. 2 defection of Adrian Hernandez. Cuba embraced baseball as its revolution freed them from Spain’s control. The game represented the modern and democratic ideals of America; by the late 1800s, the word Cuba was so synonymous with baseball excellence that Negro League teams based in the Northeast, such as the Cuban Giants, even borrowed the island’s name.
Cubans who made it to the majors before Fidel Castro eliminated pro sports in 1961 reflect on baseball in the two countries and the treatment they received in various communities. Most impressive is a former athlete who sees participation in Cuba’s amateur leagues as a way to help shape youths.
Diptych technique in the early frames gives the doc the texture of a game when the ball is in play. Rest of pic is straightforward with participants ID’d well. The bulk of interviewees (the Phillies’ Tony Taylor; Rene Arocha, who was the first of 40 to defect in the 1990s; etc.) give impressive accounts with the exception of former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda, a former Cuban league player who took the field with Castro, and whose stories could have been the highlight of the pic if told better.
The direction, editing and writing of Aaron Wolf and Christopher White consistently hit the ball out of the park.