U.S., Cuba united at last (cont.)
On Wednesday night, the two scouts watched. Japan came back to tie the game twice. The two scouts casually pronounced their takes on the Japanese and Cuban talent, scribbled notes. Juantorena has a good command of English, but the men didn't know. Every once in a while he'd turn, eyes narrowed, and listen. He wasn't smiling. Then he'd turn back to the field and, tailoring his call for each player, grit his teeth to produce piercing, trilling bird calls to let Cuba know he was watching.
When designated hitter Alfredo Despaigne broke open the game with a two-run single to left in the fifth, Juantorena stood and tried twice to whistle, but his mouth had gone dry. He stood until he had worked up enough spit, and then cut loose.
Juantorena is a track man first, of course, but he knows that baseball is the heart of Cuban sports. It's also the place where the U.S. and Cuba have had their most memorable sporting clashes, and have developed a grudging respect. Pitcher Jim Abbott is still a hero in Cuba for his heroics during an exhibition tour there in 1987, and though baseball didn't become a medal sport until 1992, the tradition of U.S.-Cuba clashes invested Olympic tournaments with decades-long passion. When the U.S. finally broke through and upset Cuba for the gold medal in Sydney in 2000, manager Tommy Lasorda pronounced it "bigger than the World Series."
The U.S. and Cuba have a long and twisted history, of course, two nations bound by geography, familiarity and fear. Castro survived for nearly 50 years in power by stressing his independence of U.S. influence, so the turn against Olympic baseball can only be viewed ironically: The same anti-Americanism that sustained Fidel was a factor -- along with the lack of major league participants and a poor drug-testing policy -- when the IOC ejected baseball in 2005.
Now, despite their ongoing tensions, the U.S. and Cuba have no choice but to join together in the faint hope of reinstating baseball for the 2016 Olympic Games. The IOC will make its final vote on the matter in October of '09, and until then, says International Baseball Federation president Harvey Schiller, you can expect an intense lobbying effort. In the dugout before Wednesday's Japan-Cuba game Schiller, who helped put together New York's unsuccessful bid for the 2012 games, shook hands with Cuba Olympic Committee president Josť FernŠndez. "I said to him, 'We'll work together on this,'" Schiller said a day later.
Whether it's worth the effort is another question. The World Baseball Classic, scheduled for its second edition next year, was a great success in its '06 debut. Cuba and its fans got what they've always wanted -- the chance for their players to prove themselves against major leaguers -- and advanced to the final against Japan while the U.S. team underachieved. Without the existence of the WBC, Cuba would be left bereft by the loss of the Olympic baseball tournament. But now its national game has, in some ways, an even more vital chance to prove itself than ever.
Still, the Olympics is the world's greatest sports festival, providing for Cuba and the U.S. a political and social dynamic unlike any other. When Cuba and the U.S. meet on Friday you can expect fireworks.
"It's Yankees-Red Sox, a rivalry born of pride and mutual respect; we enjoy beating them as much as they enjoy beating us," USA baseball executive director Paul Seiler says of Cuba. "They're not down. And any fool who thinks they are will be at the wrong end of the score at the end of the day."
And any fool who thinks they aren't as motivated? All you had to see were all those Cuban officials in the ninth inning, just after they got the news that Cuba's women's volleyball team had upset China across town. A revenge win over Japan in baseball here, and now this? Juantorena and Sotomayor and all the rest of the delegation stood and slapped hands, shouting like children. It was the most simple moment on a complex night, and but for one exception, the most memorable.
Just minutes before, Blakeley and his colleague packed up their belongings and headed for the passageway out. But then something made Blakeley stop, turn and walk back over to where Juantorena was sitting. He held out his hand. Juantorena, almost before he could think, shook it, nodding. Everyone around them seemed to freeze.
"Gordon Blakeley with the Yankees," said the scout. "I saw you ..." He couldn't find the words. He removed his hand and pantomimed it, arms pumping: The indelible sight of El Caballo racing around that Montreal track 32 years ago. Juantorena smiled, but didn't say a word. Blakeley trailed off then, then he backed away, turned and left. A surreal sight, indeed, and one worth traveling around the world to see.