THE BEST TEAM MONEY CAN’T BUY
OLYMPICS ’92 SUMMER OLYMPICS
IN THE U.S., CUBA’S BASEBALL STARS MIGHT EARN MILLIONS. FOR NOW, THEY ONLY PURSUE OLYMPIC GOLD.
They’re having trouble selling their sugar. They’re running low on medicine and food. And their political ideology has been left on the dust heap of history. But !Madre de Dios! can the Cubans turn a double play!
As best anyone can tell, Fidel Castro failed in his bid to create the new socialist man. But the former designated hitter for the Soviet bloc succeeded in creating a new breed of baseball fan. There is no beer served in Havana’s Latin American Stadium. So there are no drunken brawls or vulgar chants. Hot dogs, popcorn, Cracker Jacks: for those, too, fans must climb into their dinghies and set sail for Key West, Fla. But left to coffee and cookies in the stands, Havana fans have learned to appreciate the game and their world-class players. Indeed, a fortnight ago, in the opening game of a series between the Japanese and Cuban national teams, the fans passed the ultimate test: how would they react when their team was being pummeled? True, they whistled derisively at the Cuban pitcher yanked in the second inning. But they also cheered for the Japanese base stealers and home-run hitters. Beisbol, the thinking man’s sport: George Will, call the visa office.
In Cuba, baseball is more than a sport, it has become a fledgling Free Speech movement. It’s the most openly discussed topic in the country. The “hot corner” in Havana isn’t third base but the intersection of Paseo de Marti and San Rafael where dozens of men gather by the statue of Jose Marti to do their imitation of Mike and the Mad Dog. The arguments seldom get beyond balls and strikes, but now and then a more serious undertone slips out. One recent visitor from Miami asked about a Cuban player who had defected to the United States. “Everyone,” said one fan wistfully, “should be free to choose his own destiny.”
All of which means that when the baseball competition opens next month at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, no team will carry greater expectations than the favorites from Havana. How important is baseball in Cuba? So important, goes the current joke, that if the team returns home without a gold medal, not even their families will greet them at the airport. Funny, no one in the dugout is laughing.
Over the past five years, Cuba’s record in regional- and world-championship tournaments is 63 wins and one loss. Cuba won gold medals in the last two Pan American Games, the 1988 and 1990 world championships, and the 1987, 1989 and 1991 Intercontinental Cup games. “They just overpower the opposition,” says Cuban-born Preston Gomez, a retired coach of the California Angels who stays in touch with Cuban baseball.
State monopoly works wonders in sports, whatever its shortcomings in other fields. Cuba’s stars play more than 100 games a season on regional teams under the supervision of the best baseball coaches, sports doctors and competition psychologists outside the United States big leagues. Players make an average worker’s salary of about 300 pesos a month but are free of food rationing and harvest-season drafts. Much of their life resembles U.S. barnstorming teams of the 1930s. For instance, there are few hotels on the circuit so they sleep in stadium dormitories.
For all the success, there are still questions. Could slugging third baseman Omar Linares–career batting average.369-hit a Roger Clemens fastball? Could base-stealing champ Victor Mesa outrun Sandy Alomar’s throw? Could Jorge Valdes strike out Jack Clark? In other words, how would the Cubans fare in the major leagues? The players say they are uncomfortable with the topic of their international market value. But Cuban sports executives can’t restrain themselves from bragging about the open-market value of their stars. “The Japanese have offered millions for Linares,” says Manuel Zayas of the Sports and Recreation Institute.
The official attitude toward right-hander Rene Arocha is different. Arocha, 28, split from the team during a stopover in Miami last July before the Pan American Games. Now pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals AAA team, the Louisville Redbirds, Arocha was Cuba’s first national team defector. “He is a traitor to Cuban baseball,” says Cuban Baseball Commissioner Domingo Zabala. “It is as if he died at birth.” Or maybe not quite. A moment later, Zabala asks, “How is he doing?”
The party line says that Arocha wasn’t such a hot player. But some of his ex-teammates disagree. “By my way of seeing it, he was one of our three best pitchers,” says Mesa, the base stealer. Might other players follow Arocha’s lead? “Few would take that step,” says Pablo Gutierrez Veliz, the team psychologist. “No one travels as a prisoner in bondage.” But team members do travel without their families. Arocha left his wife and child behind.
As long as Castro is in power, Cubans are unlikely to play major-league ball. The support staffers are free to take other jobs, but their earnings go to the state. More than 100 Cuban coaches and sports doctors are working in Spain, Italy, Venezuela, Mexico and Nigeria, mostly with amateur organizations. Los Sultanes, a pro team of Monterrey, Mexico, hired pitching coach Julio Romero, two other instructors and a sports physician last year. The team wanted to break a 29-year losing streak. With the Cubans’ help, they won the national championship. (Hey, do you think this might work for the Cleveland Indians?)
To win the services of Romero and the others, Los Sultanes traded a trip to Cuba, where travelers pay in hard currency. After a season of coaching, the Mexican team took two out of three exhibition games from the Cuban national team-a result that still rankles on the island. When the Sultanes went into a slump during this year’s season, the team called up a Cuban sports psychologist. “The Cubans spend 24 hours a day thinking about baseball,” says general manager Roberto Magdaleno. “Baseball is important to their entire nation.”
So the Pride of Havana go to Barcelona, determined to beat everyone including the Pride of the Yanquis. Once again, the U.S. team will consist of college all-stars; no major leaguer is about to walk away from a lucrative season to pursue Olympic gold. (The Cubans will play Team U.S.A. in a six-game exhibition series later this month.) The stiffest competition for the Cubans will likely be the Dominicans and the Taiwanese.
During the exhibition games with Japan last month, a woman stood up after a 14-0 victory and cried, “You’ve got to respect Cuba!” These aren’t just ball games. For foreign consumption, a poor Olympic showing in Cuba’s premier sport would inevitably be interpreted as a symptom of Castro’s deterioration. For domestic consumption, a nation of believers waiting back home, led by a sports fanatic, needs a respite in a time of growing hardship. Cubans have an expression for intense pressure. Naturally, it comes from baseball: “They’ve got me at three balls and two strikes.” Any kind of triumph in life is called, naturally, a home run. Cubans are expecting nothing less in Barcelona.