In the new homeland of Cuba's best pitcher, in the adopted home
state of Fidel Castro's daughter, in the sold-out home stadium
of Castro's own cable guy, Cuba and the U.S. played baseball
last Sunday. And to this hot stove, Cold War rivalry came...
warmth. Warmth was unexpected, but warmth eventually pinch-hit
After all, only three weeks had passed since Cuban righthander
Rolando Arrojo defected to America while his team was playing in
Albany, Ga. And once again last week, Cubans were going over
fences: Designated hitter Orestes Kindelan hit two home runs
into the upper deck of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, something
no major leaguer has done since 1971. One of those balls alit
521 feet from home plate, but Kindelan said the shot was no more
remarkable than his own initials, that he has indeed hit balls
farther. "In Puerto Rico," says Cuba manager Jorge Fuentes, "he
hit one that was actually uncommon."
In Atlanta the actually uncommon was commonplace. The baseballs
themselves were, as NBC might put it, implausibly live, jumping
off aluminum bats, having been soft-served by Dutch and Italian
pitchers, in a ballpark nicknamed the Launching Pad. You do the
math. The U.S. hit five home runs in the first inning against
Japan last Thursday, including back-to-back-to-back-to-back
jacks, breaking the Olympic record for backs set earlier in the
tournament by Korean shortstop Jae-Ho Back, who, naturally, wore
BACK on his back.
But back to the point, which is that Cuba and the U.S. are the
Sampras and Graf of Olympic baseball. They are head and
shoulders above the rest of the eight-team field, with the added
attraction that they actually play, to say nothing of play each
other. On Sunday, Cuba led the U.S. 10-2 and endured a
two-men-on, ninth-inning rally to survive and win 10-8. The game
was almost certainly a preview of Friday's gold medal game,
except that the U.S. was saving its ace--Clemson junior
righthander Kris Benson, a Georgia native who was taken by the
Pittsburgh Pirates with the No. 1 overall pick in June's amateur
Cuba did throw its ace, or one of them, anyway: Omar Luis. It is
difficult to say who Cuba's best pitcher is now, since Arrojo
went el lobo solo during Cuba's pre-Olympic exhibition tour. On
that tour the defending Olympic gold medalists handed the U.S.
its only three losses in 31 games. The U.S., in turn, beat Cuba
twice, leaving no prohibitive favorite for gold on Friday and
heightening interest in who might show for the showdown: Alina
Fernandez Revuelta, Castro's daughter-in-exile, who chose to
settle outside Atlanta? Perhaps Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner,
who supplied Fidel with a dish to watch TNT and CNN? How about
El Presidente himself? Who can say?
The Cubans like to enshroud themselves in myth and mystery,
obscuring themselves in the smoke of a contraband Cohiba. And
so, depending upon your source, Cuba came into the Olympics with
a winning streak in nonexhibition international play of 123, or
131, or 140 games. The real figure is as elusive as a boxer's
birth date. U.S. manager Skip Bertman of LSU may as well have
been speaking literally when he said, "Cuba has an unbelievable
record." But it would be churlish to begrudge Cuba this singular
prosperity when the nation's players are given, for their
troubles, an apartment, electricity, the use of a car and pay
roughly equal to eight dollars a month.
By contrast, many players on Team USA (which includes the top
four selections in the draft and seven of the top 10) will
become millionaire major leaguers. The chances that those
players will not eventually become "surly" are, by their own
manager's estimation, "slim." But for now members of the U.S.
squad are kindly and anonymous college kids, content to spend
their leisure time shooting (inadvertently) Monica Seles in the
back while playing laser tag in the Athletes' Village.
"People say there's pressure on us," says leftfielder Mark
Kotsay of Cal State-Fullerton, who was selected ninth in the
draft, by the Florida Marlins. "There's no pressure. Nobody
cares about Olympic baseball. I try to give people a USA
baseball pin, but nobody wants it."
The U.S. did draw an average of 45,000 fans to each of its
games, including sellouts against Japan and Cuba. But the sport
does not help to inflate the Olympic TV contracts (none of the
games were televised in the U.S.). As a result, 1996 is almost
certain to be the final all-amateur Olympic baseball tournament,
which is not to say that the U.S. will field a Dream Team in
2000, as major league teams will be loathe to release their
already-surly stars for two weeks in September. Thus, the U.S.
and Cuba's rivalry may survive one more Olympiad. But it is not
likely to be the same.
Bertman, for one, has floated the migraine-inducing notion of
holding the baseball tournament in the Winter Olympics--in, say,
Phoenix during the Salt Lake City Games of 2002. This would be
perfectly consistent with the weirdness of international
baseball, in which taters are measured in meters, TV-savvy
Italian fans hold CIAO MAMMA signs for the cameras when foul
balls are ripped toward their seats, and a 10-run mercy rule
ends games after seven innings. If it hadn't existed before this
Olympics, Amnesty International would have invented the mercy
rule, given game scores of 20-6, 19-8, 18-2, 16-6, 15-3 and 15-5
With a team ERA of 6.84, Cuban pitchers were especially
defective, but what a difference a suffix makes. Before Sunday
the press had fevered visions of Cuban pitchers serially
defecting, scaling bullpen walls and seeking asylum from
American middle relievers. In reality, a player could have
delivered himself to a ubiquitous U.S. marshal any time he cared
to. "But understand, not everyone is looking to get out," says
Bertman, whose team shares the Georgia Tech campus with Cuba. "A
lot of people love their country and don't want to leave it."
The grizzled Skipper was clearly moved by this sentiment, and
said so himself.
And so the Cubans resisted the 800 number printed on the menus
of a Cuban restaurant in Atlanta that promised a worry-free life
with a toll-free call. They simply played on, stoically
accepting Sunday's victory, even as at least one Cuban scribe
pumped his fist in the press box. "This is a ball game worthy of
the Olympics," said Fuentes, the manager. "Two countries with
more than 100 years of baseball tradition put on a spectacle."
He then praised the American crowd and speculated that Havana
would be one enormous party that night.
To some, this must serve as reward enough. Omar Linares, now 27,
has been Cuba's star third baseman since the age of 17 and would
undoubtedly have been an All-Star in the major leagues, as well.
But, "I would rather play for 11 million people than $11
million," he has said, and who can presume to deny his
sincerity? To some, Visa is not everywhere you want to be. "To
abandon one's country," a Cuban volleyballer named Ricardo
Vantes said before the Olympics began, "one has to think about
abandoning one's mother." Ideology is idiocy in the face of such
Divisive, defect-now rhetoric seemed especially inappropriate
last Saturday morning, when the percussive waves of the
Centennial Park pipe bomb were sending ripples around the world.
"You have to say peace and sport is the same word," Silvano
Ambrosioni, manager of the Italian team, said that afternoon,
after losing epically to Cuba, 20-6. "We cannot realize why a
thing like this [bomb] happens. We called our families in Italy
to say we are not hurt. We are not hurt as a player or as a
team. But we are hurt as a man."
Dissolve to the next day, when Linares replaced Ambrosioni in
the same interview-room chair, in the home of the World Series
champion Braves, and wondered aloud if he would ever play in los
major leagues. "If relations between the U.S. and Cuba improve,"
he said, "then I think this will be possible." His optimism was
at once infectious and heartbreaking: If peace and sport were
synonymous, Linares would not have to pray for the former so
that he might one day find fulfillment in the latter.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO Matt LeCroy and his teammates couldn't stop Cuba from extending its 100-plus-game winning streak. [Cuban baseball player throwing ball over Matt LeCroy]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO Linares, who would surely be a major league All-Star if he defected, cranked two homers on Sunday. [Omar Linares batting]