Panama by Alan Swyer

Bienvenidos a todos y todas,” the host, whose name was Camilo, enunciated in a rich baritone into the large microphone positioned in front of him. “You’re listening,” he continued in Spanish, “to Panamanian Sports Radio.  Today we have a special guest here all the way from Los Angeles, El Senor Mike Glickman…”

Turning to Glickman, who was seated beside him, Camilo smiled.  “Since you’re making a documentary called “Beisbol,” he said in Spanish, “I suppose we’re going to talk about my favorite game.”

“You’re going to talk baseball,” Glickman replied in a kind of Spanish that was clearly lacking the benefit of any formal training.  “I’m going to do stand-up comedy by butchering your language.”             

“That’s funny,” Camilo said.  “I hear you did interviews in Puerto Rico and Cuba before coming to Panama, and that next you’re headed to Venezuela and the Dominican.  So tell me, how or why did this film come about?”

“Because I’m crazy,” Glickman replied, drawing a full-fledged guffaw from Camilo.

There were indeed times – many of them – when Glickman wondered if he had truly lost his marbles, and not merely when he found himself being treated for an abscessed tooth by Fidel Castro’s personal dentist during his stay in Havana.  A project that began as a lark, then evolved into a labor of love, had, on more than one occasion, become what any normal human being would consider an ordeal.  Glickman, together with a cameraman, had trudged through heat, humidity, and mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds during Spring Training in Florida.  Then, the following year, through sauna-like conditions during Spring Training in Arizona.

Subsequently, the two of them lost baggage on a flight to Puerto Rico, were nearly arrested as spies in Cuba, then got food poisoning in the Canal Zone.  Worse, Glickman was certain, there were other, far more trying misadventures lurking as their peregrinations continued.

Filming here, there, and everywhere, he knew from experience, was onerous, frustrating, and, even though they were roughing it, uncomfortably expensive, given that most of the funding on “Beisbol” came from his own rapidly dwindling savings.

But it was also, more often than not, stimulating and fun.  Despite the setbacks – and sometimes even because of them – the baseball documentary had turned into Glickman’s most exciting adventure in ages. The premise of the film was simple:  that a sport noticeably lacking Spanish-speaking players before the color line was broken had, in recent years, become a Latino-dominated game. As Glickman often said when asked to define the film, it was about the immigrant experience: race, language, culture, politics, economics and – not surprisingly – baseball.

“So who until now have been your favorite interviews?” Camilo asked Glickman on the air.

“Some of today’s guys – Adrian Beltre, Carlos Beltran – have been great.  But the real joy has been the old-timers – people like Cepeda, Camilo Pascual, Tony Oliva, and a pitcher named Juan Pizarro.

“A lefty from Puerto Rico.”

“Probably the best pitcher ever to leave the island.”

“And do you have a favorite story?”

“Vic Power – real name Victor Pellot – walks into a restaurant after a minor league game in the South, and suddenly the place goes still,” Glickman recounted.  “A young waitress is given the task of approaching him.  Sorry, but we don’t serve colored people,’ she says. ‘That’s good, ’cause I don’t eat colored people,’ Vic replies with a smile.  ‘Bring me some rice and beans.'”

“I love it!” Camilo exclaimed, then leaned toward the microphone.  “How about we take some calls now from listeners phoning in?”

“Sounds good.”

“First up is Placido, who wants to ask about the Cubans.  Go ahead, Placido.”

“We hear about those guys,” the caller said in Spanish.  “But really, how good are they?”

“Let’s start with the fact that the tradition is incredibly rich.  Aside from the ones who played in the Big Leagues – Pascual, Oliva, El Duque – there are people – and Branch Rickey  was among them – who think the greatest player from anywhere may have been the legendary Martin Dihigo.  Then came stars like Omar Linares and German Mesa, who never got to play in the States.  And today there’s Chapman who’s pitching for the Yankees, plus Puig with the Dodgers.

Excelente,” said Camilo, who was clearly having a good time.  “Now our next call is from a woman named Bernice, who says she’s got a personal question for you.  You’re on, Bernice.”

“Why always baseball, baseball, baseball when you could be doing something with your life?” asked a woman speaking not Spanish, but English, with a Bronx-accented voice that seemed capable of breaking glass.

“Mom?” Glickman gasped, convinced this must be a put-on or a trick.

“Who’d you expect, the Queen of England?”

“How’d you track me down in Panama?”

“To rub it in for not being a doctor or lawyer?  I’d find you on the moon!”

“So what exactly do you want?” 

“For you to grow up already,” Glickman heard her say.  “Do something with your life.  Something that makes me proud.”  Then the line went dead.

“You okay?

Shaking his head, Glickman turned toward Camilo for some sort of explanation.  But all he got was a shrug from the host, who spoke virtually no English.

“Ready for another?” Camilo whispered in Spanish.  When Glickman nodded, Camilo leaned toward the microphone.  “Our next caller says his name is Mort.”

“So why’d you lie to me?” asked an English speaker whose accent Glickman recognized not just as Jersey, but specifically Newark.

“What’re you talking about, Dad?”

“That article where you said you were going to the movies, when you really went to Harlem to watch basketball.”

“That was in the New York Times ten years ago!”

“You could’ve been killed.”

“But I wasn’t.”

“Still, you embarrassed me.”

“After you said I’d only get my name in the paper when they carted me off to jail? Shouldn’t you be happy?  Maybe even proud?”

“It’s still not right.”

“So what’re you going to do, dock me my allowance?  The statute of limitations has run out.”

“Never change, do you?” his father asked.  “Always Mr. Know-it-all…”

Esta bien?” Camilo whispered to Glickman when the phone line went dead.  “You okay?”

Glickman nodded gamely, though in truth he was anything but.  While the call from his mother had surprised him, its impact was nothing compared to the one from his father.  And it wasn’t simply the reproaches that stung.  More troubling was something he dared not acknowledge to Camilo:  that his father had died of a heart attack nearly four years before.

Wiping the sweat from his brow, Glickman tried to make sense of what was going on.  Was it his imagination?  Residual effects from too many years of drugs?  Or simply a case of flipping his lid? Fortunately the next couple of questions, from Spanish-speaking callers, were baseball-related, giving Glickman a chance to go on automatic pilot while discussing percentages of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in baseball, plus the emergence of Latinos in front offices. But then came a call from another English speaker.

“Why couldn’t you let me win just once?” a woman asked.

“Roberta?” Glickman asked, hearing what sounded like his sister’s voice.

“Damn right it’s me!” she replied.  “Pissed as always.”

“What now?”

“I sent my kids to Yale and Brown, remember?” she asked.  “So for once I got to shine in Mom and Dad’s eyes.  But when I suggested that you send Charlie to Princeton, or Stanford, or anyone of a million goddamn places, did you listen?  No, not you.  You had to send him to Harvard.”

“What’s wrong with that?

“Trumping Laurie and Ken!”

“This is crazy,” Glickman protested.

“So you can be the top dog like always.  And have things your goddamn way.”

“I’m glad you’re proud of your nephew.”

“Think I give a shit about you or him?  You should only drop dead!”

Throughout his years of flying across the globe, Glickman’s favorite travel joke was that no matter where he went, even to remote and inaccessible corners, there was one big problem: wherever he arrived, he was there. That meant that while living in the south of France, he would find himself burdened by a guilty conscience, wondering Is this where I’m supposed to be?  And hiking on the Great Wall of China, he had to fight off questions like Do I really belong here?  And filming inside a maximum-security prison, he had visions of being told that, unlike his crew, he would never be allowed to leave.

The mind games, he had come to understand, were vestiges of what he referred to as brainwashing, relentless browbeating that had caused him to internalize not just the fears, but also the expectations of the home life he detested.

“What do you need it for?” was his father’s refrain whenever Glickman expressed the slightest bit of interest in anything that strayed from what was accepted as the norm.  That, plus a question that was even more cringe-inducing:  “Who in hell do you think you are?”

Worse was the barrage of negativity from his mother, who not only criticized his friends and his interests relentlessly, but also filled his childhood with breathless recitations of his countless sins and shortcomings, never failing to include a vociferous denunciation of theob/gyn who delivered him.  That icon of his youth was referred to at least a thousand times as The Sadist Who Ruined My Life.

Glickman’s escape was into realms that triggered, for his parents, a special combination of loathing and fear:  boxing, baseball, and basketball; black music; and above all, non-stop trouble-making. It was no surprise to Glickman, in moments of reflection, that those interests went on to become the bedrock of his professional life – the subjects in which he came to be considered a maven, and from which he derived the bulk of his livelihood. Yet in dark moments – the time he recklessly tore a tendon in his leg… or when he came down with hepatitis… and especially when a film he cared deeply about was nearly torpedoed by a producer who turned out to be a deadbeat – he found himself wondering if his career choices were prompted not merely by personal interests, but also as a payback, a way of settling scores.

It was not a subject near to his heart, nor one upon which he often dwelled.  Indeed months, sometimes even years, could go by with nary a thought, creating the sensation that he had escaped and was finally free. Yet in Panama, of all places, the old pangs and resentments had resurfaced in a new and startling way. Could those calls have actually taken place?  Glickman found himself wondering, first in the bar in the lobby of his hotel, then later as he lay in bed.

That led to other bizarre questions, among them what his life would be like if he had capitulated and done what was wanted or expected.  A doctor was what his parents wanted most, willfully ignoring his disinterest in science.  Next choice was lawyer, an occupation that, despite his argumentative nature, was of no greater interest to him.  When the idea of being a   dentist was dismissed with a laugh, his parents voiced a suggestion that was the greatest stretch of all. What about Rabbi?  Glickman remembered his father asking out of desperation.

The notion of leading the dull, dreary, respectable life in the kind of New Jersey suburb that they cherished went far beyond chilling.  It reawakened the pain and anguish from the browbeating and disapproval that continued until he was angry, resourceful, and old enough to leave for good.

But nonetheless, years later, at 3 in the morning, in a hotel in Panama whose name he would have trouble remembering, after draining what was left of a bottle of Scotch, Glickman had what he considered to be an epiphany.

It was only because of the unhappiness of his formative years, he suddenly realized, that he had developed his loathing of authority. And it was that emotion that fueled his perpetual fight for social justice, plus his never-ending urge to thumb his nose at fat cats and pontificators.

In contrast to poseurs who choose to identify with the disenfranchised, Glickman knew first-hand what it was like to be and feel downtrodden. Growing up criticized and unloved filled him with anger.  That anger grew into full-scale rage because of the disdain that he, a white kid growing up in a poor black community, received first from his condescending New York cousins, then from the suburban kids he encountered through sports and the menial jobs he took for spending money.

Little wonder that he evolved into an activist, a champion of the underdog, and most importantly a fighter.  He first learned to fight with his fists, then with his wits, then finally with the films he made.

Though there were moments of happiness, both personally and professionally in his life, being happy, Glickman recognized, was never likely to be part of his makeup. He was too restless, too antsy, and above all too dissatisfied with with the unfairness he saw in the world. But that, he reflected as the first rays of sunlight made their appearance in his hotel room, was not just a curse, but also a blessing. He might never be comfortable in repose.  Nor was he ever likely to be mistaken for a Zen master.  But he was proud to fight the good fight both in his work and in his personal life. That meant tabling both the soul searching and the self-reflection.

He had more on-camera interviews to conduct in Panama, then a plane to catch for Venezuela. And hopefully more films to make once “Beisbol” was finally done.


Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel ‘The Beard’ was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.

Photo: Mateuz


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