Over the past fortnight, 32 baseball games were played at
Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, in which there were a combined
133 home runs, innumerable pitching changes and no broken-bat
singles. The purpose of all this Olympic activity was to award
handsome prizes for baseball excellence and to see if any team
could defeat the Cubans. The final chance for that came last
night: Cuba versus Japan, baseball-crazed island versus
baseball-crazed island, playing for the gold.
The finale, of course, was supposed to be an all-Western affair.
All the scribes--all the U.S. writers, anyway--were typing
advances for the Cuba-U.S. final weeks ago. But the U.S. was
squashed by Japan on Thursday, and that meant the only thing
left for the Americans was a game with Nicaragua for the bronze
medal, which they secured with a 10-3 victory yesterday. As it
did throughout the tournament, the U.S. died and lived by the
long ball; it had four dingers against Nicaragua.
The home run was so commonplace in the Olympic tournament, it
was in jeopardy of losing its vaunted status. Dinger number 126,
however, had true grandeur.
Through three innings last night, Cuba led 6-0, with five of the
runs scoring on long balls. Then, trailing 6-2 in the fifth,
Japan first baseman Nobuhiko Matsunaka launched a bases-loaded
fastball into the steamy Dixie night and over the outfield wall.
The enthusiastic response to number 126 from many of the 44,221
folks on hand suggested that either U.S. fans favored Japan over
Cuba or they wanted to see a competitive game. With that one
swing, all was square, 6-6. Game on.
Briefly, anyway. In the bottom of the sixth Cuba had three more
homers and four more runs. In the top of the seventh there was a
solo homer for Japan; in the bottom of the inning, a solo homer
for Cuba. In the bottom of the eighth Cuba scored on a two-run
homer by its superb third baseman, Omar Linares, who hit three
home runs on the night and in nine games finished with eight
homers, 16 RBIs and a .476 average. In the ninth Japan scored on
a two-run homer by leftfielder Yoshitomo Tani, his second homer
of the night. You getting all this?
There were 11 homers in the gold medal game, eight by the
Cubans. It was like that showy fence-swinging contest before the
major league All-Star Game--whoever has the most dingers wins.
Cuba won 13-9. It had won the gold in Barcelona, too. According
to Cuban accountants, Cuba has won 143 consecutive international
tournament games. A dynasty lives, defections and all.
The most stirring moment came after the game. The medals were
awarded a half-hour after the final out, and hardly a soul had
left the park. As the Cubans were draped with medals and handed
flowers, they snapped pictures of one another, smiled widely,
their teeth glistening as they stood on a platform on the
infield dirt. These men do not know freedom, not in the U.S.
sense of the word, but last night they knew joy.
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO COVER PHOTO OMAR LINARES BANGS THREE HOMERS; CUBA REMAINS DIAMOND KING
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Matsunaka was out on this dive into first, but his slam in the fifth tied the game. [Nobuhiko Matsunaka]