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Long Ball

That phrase took on new meaning when the U.S. and Cuba played...and played...and played

Sorry, but the real dream team belongs to USA Baseball. It puts people to sleep.

Last week the U.S. baseball team, a contingent of 20 young men managed by former University of Miami coach Ron Fraser, came from ahead to lose to a team from Cuba, the island nation just south of Florida that has been ruled by Fidel Castro for, oh, about 30 years now, by the score of—excuse us while we tie our, where were we?...oh, yes—by the score of 9-6 at Estadi de Beisbol de L'Hospitalet during the preliminary round of the baseball competition in the XXV Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona, a Spanish city with a population of 1.7 million people that is nestled on the Mediterranean Sea.

That last sentence should give you some idea of what it was like to watch the big, not to mention long and boring, game between the U.S. and Cuba in Olympic Baseball I. A few more games like that one, and there may be no Baseball II in Atlanta in 1996. (The two teams were to play again Tuesday in the semifinal round.)

With the stadium sold out and the press section overflowing, an upset, or even an exciting game, might have given Olympic baseball the prestige of, say, team handball. But, no. The overmatched U.S. team committed five errors and the Cubans four. There were also a couple of balls that fell among outfielders for singles, some distinct lack of hustle on the part of the Americans, a wild pitch, bad umpiring and various delay tactics by both teams. Said Fraser, "The Cubans tied so many shoes that I went out to the umpires to offer them some of our shoelaces."

Still, it takes two to play a game that lasts exactly four hours, and the Americans were just as guilty of time-wasting. Fraser, who's known for his gamesmanship, instructed his batters to step out a lot against Cuba's pitchers. First baseman Jason Giambi is a nice kid and all, a good student at Long Beach State, but if he doesn't get in the batter's box sometime soon, we'll scream.

The time of the game was an Olympic record, of course, and it was only 18 minutes short of the major league record for a nine-inning game. In the wee-hours press conference following the game, which began at 9 p.m., Cuban manager Jorge Fuentes was asked this question: "If you were a Spaniard or Frenchman watching his first game tonight, would you ever go to another game?" The usually dour Fuentes laughed.

He could have easily been laughing at the U.S. team's selection process, which kept the Americans from fielding their best squad. Fraser had just one week to cut 50 players down to 25, and four weeks to forge them into the semblance of a team. Partly because Fraser didn't have time to make proper assessments, his roster had no true first baseman, only two lefthanded hitters and no pitching depth. The Cubans, who have at least seven players with major league talent, have been together for years.

Which is how long some of these Olympic baseball games seem to last. The press was so turned off by the U.S.-Cuba game that only a handful of reporters showed up for the next U.S. game, against Puerto Rico, at Estadi de Beisbol de Viladecans. It is a splendid venue, built in the shadow of Mont Sant Ramón, and there was a festive atmosphere as spectators watched from the hills surrounding the outfield and one Puerto Rican fan played the trumpet.

But soon enough, the game settled into a torpor as batters stepped out and pitchers walked around. Bored with the game, several sportswriters changed the channel on their TVs to catch a racy movie, La Piscina, starring Alain Delon. There was a certain suspense in trying to see who could make out quicker, Alain Delon or Jason Giambi. Despite being outhit 15-9, the U.S. beat Puerto Rico 8-2 in a soggy three hours and 42 minutes. And Delon beat Giambi.




Some of the game's liveliest action: Phil Nevin of the U.S. (second from left) argues a call.