The Old Man and the Spree

Maybe it takes an ego as big as the ocean to think you can swim underwater from Havana to Miami. Especially if you're 75 years old.

Baldasare had run out of ideas. He left the Copacabana a week earlier than he'd planned, and he called no press conferences.

It wasn't until early November, after he was back home in Palm Harbor, that he received a phone call from Tallahassee. "Our legal department spoke with him," says Dick Kane, who works in the Bush press office. "We had to tell him we just don't do things like that." Baldasare prefers a different spin on the conversation, one in which the governor's people express great interest in his project. By that time, however, he didn't need them anymore. He had found a sponsor.

It had all come together like a charm: Upon his return from Cuba, Baldasare called a distant relative, Liz Collier-Ortiz, who is a long-time employee of Diversified Environmental Services in Tampa. The company's founder and president, Gerry McCormick, owns a fleet of boats. "When Fred found out I worked in a company that had a lot of boats and barges, he saw an opportunity," Collier-Ortiz relates. (McCormick declined to speak with New Times.)

Second wife "Mermaid Kitty" set depth diving records and attracted tourists to Baldasare's glass-bottom boat tours in the Bahamas
photos courtesy Fred Baldasare
Second wife "Mermaid Kitty" set depth diving records and attracted tourists to Baldasare's glass-bottom boat tours in the Bahamas
Baldasare's sleek Yamaha V Max, on which he recently toured the eastern United States and Canada
Kathy Glasgow
Baldasare's sleek Yamaha V Max, on which he recently toured the eastern United States and Canada

"So," Collier-Ortiz goes on, "Fred asked if he could have a meeting with Mr. McCormick, which I arranged, and we went over the specifics of what Fred would need. Gary's got a barge that could hold a lot of equipment, also a 90-foot and a 65-foot yacht that could run alongside the barge. This would be something newsworthy, so Mr. McCormick sees it might be of interest just for the sake of being part of that, and once he realized he could basically provide most of what Fred needs, he was really positive about it."

Now Baldasare is advertising for a dozen divers. He says half that many so far have volunteered to accompany him for two weeks in July. He doesn't have the money to pay them, but he hopes that will come after the proposed expedition attracts more sponsors and press coverage. Collier-Ortiz is contacting the local media. Baldasare stays at his computer for hours, writing letters and promotional summaries, and working on his autobiography. A Bally Total Fitness facility recently offered him the use of its pool and indoor track. Soon he'll begin six hours of daily training, which will consist mainly of "an unusual kind of walk I developed when I was training in Italy; it uses the same muscle group as swimming, and one hour of this walking is the same as five hours of swimming."

As Baldasare goes on about his plans, sister Maxine, smartly attired in a lustrous persimmon-orange tunic and black pants, steps through the back door toting a few bags of groceries (among them a new carton of pistachio ice cream). Lately she looks forward to running errands in her brand-new Honda Civic, the apple of her eye. It's parked outside in the carport right behind Baldasare's shiny black Yamaha V Max motorcycle, on which he traveled to Canada and back last year.

Of course nothing will make up for the loss of both of Maxine's children, who died young from cancer, just months apart, about five years ago. Her granddaughter, who's working and going to school, doesn't spend much time at home any longer. But Maxine has been able to catch up on all the years she never saw her brother Fred, while he was gallivanting with beautiful blondes and swimming with sharks. Now they have all the time they need.

"He coulda been rich today," she opines without bitterness or nostalgia, just flat certainty. She leans back into the plush mauve sofa in their living room, reaching for a cell phone on the end table and clicking her tongue. "He knows so many people, and look how he ended up."

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