Don’t Fence Me In (Part 1)

There is not a day that goes by on social media where I do not see someone making a comment about wanting to change something about their life. This is not to say that their lives are miserable, but simply that they would like to change something about it, their weight, their looks, and often their jobs. Yet it seems as though most people do not actually do something about their situation. It can be scary to leave the things you are accustomed to, but what if the thing you love and have been doing your whole life isn’t where your passion lies? Do you remain static, or do you throw caution to the wind and follow your heart? This is a story of one man who followed his heart. A story of a man who reached the pinnacle of his profession by the time he was 24 but knew there was something else waiting for him. 

Adrian Cardenas, the son of Cuban immigrants grew up in a home that can be described as a house of love, and a house of learning. Adrian was an only child, whose parents exposed him to the things that they loved such as reading, watching movies, and music. This developed a love for the arts in Adrian who started to play piano at the age of three. Like other children Adrian wanted to be around his friends and sports was a way to do that, so when he was five his parents signed him up for baseball on a team coached by his uncle. It would not take long for Adrian’s natural skill set to start to separate him from the crowd, which in part he credits to his ability to play the piano, and with that his love for the game began to grow, all with the support and encouragement of his parents. By 13, Adrian would find himself on the U.S. Junior National Team which took him to Cuba for the first time in 2001. It would also be the first time that his father returned home to his native land after escaping thirty-one years before.

Baseball would be good to Adrian. He would be drafted in the first round of the Major League Draft by the Phillies, along with high school teammate Chris Marrero who was the first pick of the Washington Nationals that year. His amateur and professional career would make him teammates with such superstars as Clayton Kershaw, and Anthony Rizzo, and in 2009, as a member of the Sacramento River Cats, Triple-A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics, he would be reunited with Gio Gonzalez with whom he played baseball with in high school at Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens, Florida.  During his days in Sacramento, Adrian decided to begin taking classes at New York University to study creative writing and philosophy, while in his free time he found himself honing his photography skills on the banks of the Sacramento River and in Old Sacramento. Adrian played 236 games in Sacramento, by far the most of any team during his professional career and still carries fond memories of his time here. Whether it be the Doskow sandwich, named after River Cats announcer Johnny Doskow, or the cold night in which he was a homerun shy of the cycle, and in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded he laced a ball that everyone thought was going to be a walk off grand slam for the cycle, “I remember hitting it, and I thought it was gone by forty feet over the fence, so I drop the bat and swag over to first base and sure enough the right fielder just goes and barely reaches over and catches it” Adrian recalled.  The Athletics took him off of the 40-man roster after the 2011 season, which allowed the Chicago Cubs to claim him off waivers and finally gave him his shot in the Major Leagues. Adrian found himself going between Chicago and Triple-A Iowa, getting his first Major League hit off of Jose Veras and breaking up A.J. Burnett’s no hitter in the 8th inning, but he was blocked by Gold Glove winning second baseman Darwin Barney that year. Adrian ended the 2012 season as Major League baseball player, but when 2013 rolled around, he quit. He was 25 years old, and in the prime of his career, but baseball became a business, and his heart longed to express itself in other ways. Adrian Cardenas still loved baseball, but his passion for knowledge consumed him.

Having been away from the game for eight years now Adrian can look back and realize that he appreciates the game much more now,

“I feel like I’m so much more in love with the game now than before, and I think that’s just the product of being away from it. I was a bit ahistorical about the game, and to my detriment I would say, when you don’t have an understanding of the game and its history, it can be hard to appreciate it on any given day especially because you’re just constantly playing. Once I was no longer playing, I got a greater sense of what it meant to be a baseball player”.

Looking back, Adrian sees that baseball, through his own experience is not as popular as it once was. The younger generations continue to gravitate toward other sports, and in essence, baseball appears to no longer be American’s Pastime. One solution in Adrian’s eyes would be to give fans more access to players in ways such as mic’ing them up.

“I think that it would definitely be something that would get people to tune in a bit more. The game is a beautiful game and I think there is a big misconception regarding the fast-paced nature of baseball. Most people think its slow, and boring and nothing happens but if people really understood what went on between the forty seconds it takes for a pitcher to release the ball and then throw the next pitch, there is so much going on there. There are so many permutations that are being calculated…and if there is a way to understand that a bit better, I feel like there would be a greater appreciation of the game regarding the masses”.

The waning interest in baseball led Major League Baseball to decide to contract the Minor Leagues by 42 teams in 2020, yet once Covid-19 shut down all of Minor League Baseball, that left many more teams wondering how they will stay afloat until the revenue they need to maintain their ball clubs returns.

Having put baseball behind him, Adrian embarked on following his new career path as a filmmaker and enrolled at New York University.  His student films Rocinante (https://vimeo.com/220024689), and Tabaquero (https://vimeo.com/157092382) can both be found on Vimeo. In discussing these films, Adrian says,

“Those were assignments for class, an OCS is what we called it, an observational character study. The assignment was to find a person that interests you, and then follow them for a while and craft a story around it. The rule was that you couldn’t use talking heads. So you couldn’t interview. The goal was essentially to learn how to how to be able to recognize, I wouldn’t say drama but sort of where there’s tensions, what’s engaging, what is not engaging, in a way that if you have someone just giving an interview is, you know, a lot, a lot harder to do or a lot easier to create. This makes you, the filmmaker be a bit more proactive”.

Upon graduating Summa Cum Laude from NYU, and then completing his M.F.A from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Adrian found himself with a lot more time on his hands.

“Once I finished grad school, I realized for like the first six, seven months, it was this bizarre experience where, I had nothing to do. I dictated what to do, no one was telling me what to do, and for my entire life, since I can remember that was never the case. You know, I had baseball, piano all throughout my childhood, plus High School. Then I was playing baseball professionally, and that was extremely rigorous. Then I was balancing baseball and school. Then I went and did my masters. And now I have all this free time. And for me, I’m a big believer in the constraints, and I think they’re necessary. And luckily I feel like I’m a pretty disciplined person. So I had to create a routine for myself but the way it works now is I carve out four or five hours, maybe a day to work on the primary things that I’m doing. So like, in this case, now, it’s editing the short film and working on my feature. And then the other, like, two or three hours is spent sort of just, learning or reading or just doing something intellectually to sort of feed into my work”.

Adrian now has four short films under his belt which include Rocinante, The Artisan, The Fisherwoman, and Canoe Poems which was a selection for the 2018 Miami Film Festival. Adrian’s desire to learn more about his heritage led him back to Cuba in hopes of being able to film there.

“Because my parents are Cuban I’m able to go there a lot easier than someone who is not….that was a big misconception unfortunately…anyone if you’re an American through and through, could have gone to Cuba legally. I also have a lot of family there, so I go to meet my family and when I started going to school I wanted to go back more and more just to sort of see for myself some of the stories, some of the places that my dad and mom spoke of. I wanted to see where they grew up and where they lived, and then eventually I wanted to explore other parts of the country that seemed interesting to me or friends that were Cuban.

It was through a friend that Adrian discovered the town of Gibara, which is a small fishing community about 12 hours east of Havana. Of Gibara he says, “I fell in love with that place and spent a lot of time there and decided I wanted to write a story that took place there”. It would be a story that would take Adrian much longer than anticipated to complete. Adrian’s desire to cast the locals for the roles meant that he spent a lot of time scouting locations and trying his best to find genuine stories that would tell the tale of Cuba after the Revolution, but without it being the at the forefront. “The oppression is real. I just had a strong inclination to tell stories that didn’t avoid the politics….and focus more on the everyday conflicts of certain people. I think that’s sort of my subtle way of wanting to get people to lean in and be curious about Cuba”.  Filming in Cuba presented its own difficulties as all films need to be approved by the Instito Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos (ICAIC).

“Filming there was a bit trickier because when you film there, censorship for example is a thing. So when I first tried to film in Cuba I was just like this no one for them. I’m just an American, and I’m not Cuban to the government. I had to contact so many people and I was just basically getting either no response or the runaround. This was my second year in grad school, and your second year of grad school revolves around one big project. That project for me was going to be in Cuba. I had a certain slot in which I had to shoot that film [to] get everything done and approved to shoot that film there”.

During this time, Cuba was still on the list of state sponsors of terrorism but have since been removed by President Barack Obama in 2015. This caused further troubles for Adrian as NYU made it more difficult for him to go there and he was unable to get his visa on time forcing him to wait a year to film in Cuba. It turned out that was not the only reason that Adrian was unable to film in Cuba that year.

“Part of the reason why, I learned, they weren’t paying me much mind was at that time a year prior, a film that the ICAIC approved ended up getting censored once it came out. And so they were sort of like in this we’re not letting anyone show up here for a while. Priority number one was figuring out who the hell approved this film. So coupled with the fact that I didn’t have any contacts there it was just an impossibility”.

During his stay at NYU, Adrian became close friends with someone whose father is a well-respected director in Cuba who was able to put Adrian in contact with the ICAIC. It was from that point that Adrian was able to submit his script for approval and obtain the proper permits and authorizations to film The Artisan in Cuba.

Although having had a set back the previous year in regard to filming in Cuba it was during that time that Adrian was able to film his Miami Film Festival selection.

Canoe Poems was the result of the film that I wasn’t able to shoot in Cuba. I had to make something up quickly, very quickly, and shoot it. The story centers around this guy who is in an open relationship with his girlfriend, or at least is trying that out, and as the relationship spirals to an end in one long sleepless night, he continues to romanticize daydreams of a better time between him and her, and sort of like his deceased father who shows up in these dreams….I wouldn’t say its experimental because it’s not but it was in film school and what that means for me is there was just learning and trying, just like the minor leagues all over again, learning how to perfect your skill”.

Upon Canoe Poems selection to the film festival and the experience he gained from it Adrian said,

“They put [Canoe Poems] on the big screen and it’s nice, it’s a nice event to sort of see it played in front of a big audience and have them react to it in ways that you may or may not have intended but it’s nice to have those discussions which, for me, that’s what filmmaking is like; an opportunity to discover things about me, my family, sort of how I like to view the world and what I make of it. It’s a grueling process, but it’s a rewarding one. It’s definitely one that I can see why ultimately, it took me away from baseball. Oftentimes people say, or asked me, did you not like baseball? No, I love baseball. I just like this more or I felt a stronger urge to begin this journey of mine. I understood that I just won’t become a filmmaker overnight. I need to put in the time just like I did with baseball, and I wanted to do that sooner rather than later”.

Adrian is just getting started with his film career and grateful for his film’s inclusion into the film festival but realizes he hasn’t reached “the Majors” in filmmaking. That dream will be realized when he makes his first feature film. Adrian has just wrapped up work on another short film, a fictional story that stars his parents, grandmother, and best friend. Incorporating archival footage shot by his dad.

“I shot it, it was just me and my girlfriend who was the cinematographer and we spent 27 days, which is ridiculous, like more than a lot of features take to fill. But yeah, it was two people and it was at my parents’ house and you know, within consecutive days I had to work around their schedule. Also, they’re not actors. So one scene probably took, could have taken up to two days, ridiculous, but it was just this passion project of mine that I wanted to craft the story around them”.

Adrian has also started work on his first feature film which is set in a fictional town based loosely on Gibara, Cuba. Already with a draft of the film done, Adrian plans to apply to writing labs to polish off his work before he submits it to production companies, and finds the financial backing for the film in hopes to begin filming in 2022, “that would be my cup of coffee”.

Adrian is also working on his father’s escape story from Cuba. Although originally intended to be a film, before he understood what it took to make a film, the period piece, which he considers to be a big story would be better as a novel so that he could explore and develop it with much more meaning. In the back of his mind, Adrian dreams that once published his book could be adapted into a film, and considers that similar to being selected for the All Star team, as he feels there would be nuggets with which he can expound upon and run with.

There is no end to Adrian’s talents. I was fortunate enough to watch him play baseball for the Sacramento River Cats on many occasions and he was a fan favorite for what he was doing on the field. I can now say that I’ve watched his work as a filmmaker, and highly recommend both Rocinante and The Artisan. Adrian is a storyteller. He once told a story with a bat and ball and has grown into a storyteller who tells his stories with his heart and mind. Although one might think that baseball and the arts are on two separate planes, they are woven together by passion. It can be a blinding passion and Adrian once said that “the American Dream forgot to tell you to step back and enjoy the smell of burnt wood”, well he is definitely doing that now.

“I love my parents. My parents have been such great role models. I’ve been able to travel with my dad and dad a lot, but my dad sort of has the bug to travel. I’ve been able to like, sift through all these videos and digitize them. I’ve been able to craft the story centered around them and record them. That for me is everything really like that’s what it’s about for me. I don’t think I’d be able to do any of that stuff if I were playing baseball. It’s not that its impossible. just for me personally, who I was, I was so focused and so competitive and chasing this relatively meaningless goal; relative to the things that I just mentioned. that I felt I forgot to step back and enjoy the smell of burnt wood. You know, many players were able to do that. Many players were able to do that and have this other life or felt fulfilled just playing baseball. For me, there’s just so much more. I don’t know if it’s this sort of nature, I’m an only child. I’m an introvert at heart, I’m constantly struggling with existential thoughts. And that was sort of like a way to feel, acknowledge, my presence in this in this world and really relate to it, and react towards it and engage with it, and then ultimately discovered things. I feel like that was sort of the goal. and that’s what I’m doing now. I just need to make a little money”.

This story started out about baseball, but as I dug deeper into Adrian’s life, it became a story about a second-generation immigrant looking to discover himself through that which he is most passionate about. I was moved by Adrian’s family story, and I was intrigued by how familiar it felt. His families’ story in many ways is mine, and then I realized that this story is the story of us, the story of the United States of America.

This story contributed to by K.Bria

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