A day at the ballpark with Anthony Bourdain

By Peter C. Bjarkman

Anthony Bourdain was a celebrity chef, world traveler, skilled wordsmith and television personality all rolled into one engaging personality. Bourdain’s tragic loss in June was deeply felt by millions who had, for much of the past two decades, enjoyed the sardonic wit of his writings or were entertained and enlightened by his intimate and outspoken portraits of cultures and cuisines found in the distant corners the world.

Bourdain also had a relationship with baseball, which I witnessed firsthand during a three-day trip we had in Cuba in 2011. There I personally saw the genuineness of his persona, the connection he had with Latino cultures and cuisine, and the real charm of who he was.

For those of us fortunate to travel and work with Bourdain – if only for the span of a few days – the loss had an even deeper resonance. A “bad boy” New York executive chef who escaped the dark world of personal drug addiction and then morphed into a global cultural sage with his long-running and immensely popular series “No Reservations” (The Travel Channel) and “Parts Unknown” (CNN), Bourdain arguably did more than any other American commentator to educate a generation of viewers about cultures spread around the globe and often sadly hidden from too many American eyes.

A Genuine Persona

A few days of personal travel with him quickly revealed that the persona viewers saw on the television screen was indeed the genuine Anthony Bourdain. What amazed me most about my three-day experience filming “No Reservations Cuba” in Havana during early March 2011 was that nothing was scripted or staged. Everything was just as it appeared: Tony hanging out at a bar or restaurant, in a private home, on some beach or at some local gathering, chatting with his hosts and new, if only temporary, friends, firing off questions that often caught them completely off guard but always brought forth the deepest insights into a corner of a remarkably diverse world.

The filming activity that produced his shows was usually no more than a three-day visit. Tony would emerge from his hotel room each morning and ask his crew, normally two producers and two ace cameramen, the same questions: “Where am I going today? What am I eating? Who am I hanging with?”

There was a plan, of course – who would be interviewed and what sites or restaurants were to be visited – but the genius always remained the post-production editing and Tony’s background monologues that turned three days and more than fifty hours of filming and recording into a tightly constructed 45 minutes of televised enlightenment.

An Advocate for Latinos

Bourdain was a special champion of Latino chefs, cooks and kitchen workers during both his earlier restaurant life and his later stardom as a successful writer and television celebrity. In his last of several shows on Mexico – “Parts Unknown,” January 2018 – he wrote and spoke poignantly in both his on-camera monologue and related CNN blog of the country that was “our brother from another mother. A country, with whom, like it or not, we are inexorably, deeply involved, in a close but often uncomfortable embrace.” Bourdain emphasized that “in nearly 30 years of cooking professionally, just about every time I walked into a new kitchen, it was a Mexican guy who looked after me, had my back, showed me what was what.”

Less known was the fact that Bourdain was also a huge baseball fan, a Yankee rooter by birthright, as a native of New Jersey whose parents were a Columbia Records music executive and a New York Times editor. That ballpark fandom was what connected me to Bourdain.

After five years of failed efforts to film in Cuba, Tony’s Zero Point Zero production company was finally granted permission to enter Havana and Tony wanted to emphasize Cuba’s most celebrated cultural treasure, baseball. When producer Phil Boag phoned me with an invitation to join the Havana filming as Tony’s special guide to the Havana baseball scene, I didn’t know who Anthony Bourdain was and had never watched a single show. But I jumped at yet another Havana visit and was, in the process, quickly converted into a genuine Bourdain disciple. I have rarely missed a show in the seven succeeding years.

Baseball & Tony en la Habana

When we hit the ground in Havana in March 2011 I was unaware of how much baseball would figure into the finished on-air production. We attended a Havana championship game between teams of 10-year-olds representing two of the city’s central barrios. Staged in a mini-stadium on a corner lot, the game played to a packed grandstand of about three hundred with a thousand or more peering through the outfield’s chain-link fence. We interviewed and interacted with the famed “Hot Corner” fans at Havana’s Central Park where I was Tony’s translator. We also attended a Cuban League game between the hometown Industriales and visiting league champion Ciego de Avila at historic Latin American Stadium.

During an hour in the Central Park and all nine innings of both ball games we wore mics, every word was recorded and the filming was nonstop. What resulted were three tightly edited segments that provided the bulk of a show which was arguably the most insightful and engaging view of communist Cuba ever witnessed by most North American television viewers. Perhaps no other widely viewed documentary film has captured a more balanced portrait of the true Cuba – both plusses and minuses – during Fidel Castro’s final years.

Some delightful surprises emerged from those three Havana baseball segments. On several occasions I mused privately that one or another of Tony’s spontaneous comments was so clever and even so shocking that it could never possibly get by the final editing stage, and yet many of those moments actually did. At the Little League game, Tony commented that he couldn’t imagine an American version of that scene containing several hundred thinly clad mothers singing, chanting, and “shaking their asses” in their over-the-top enthusiasm.

At the league game the leadoff batter smacked the first pitch into the left field bleachers and is shown rounding the bases. “That didn’t take long,” I said to Tony. What most viewers of that scene never realized was that the batter shown was Rusney Castillo, still a couple of years away from his record $72 million contract with the Boston Red Sox.

At the Central Park session Tony wanted to quiz fans about their passion for island baseball, but the enthusiastic Cubans only wanted to interrogate the visiting Americans about our opinions of recent defector Aroldis Chapman’s prospects in the American big leagues.

Most surprising and delightful of all was the mid-game moment at Latin American Stadium when Tony and I were struggling to consume some dry Cuban sausages on hard buns and Bourdain asked one of his handlers to fetch some beers.

I was quick to point out that the Havana ballpark was the only one on the island where alcohol of any kind was strictly prohibited. “What?” Tony quipped in melodramatic shock. “I was just beginning to like this place, but now a mutant communist hot dog with no ballpark beer? It is definitely time for another revolution!” It was classic Anthony Bourdain – a mix of the political and gustatorial, meant to excite and intrigue.

Featured and inset images: Peter Bjarkman