U.S., Cuba united at last in baseball's final Olympic hours
BEIJING -- For a scene to be truly surreal, it has to go beyond the realm of what we call odd or strange. There has to be a feeling of displacement. Time must bend a bit. And there's got to be a bewildering wrench thrown in for good measure, something so incongruous that its absurdity somehow balances out the vague sense of menace in the air.
What am I talking about? I'm talking about being at a baseball game in Beijing, China, and having legendary pro boxer Roberto Durán -- who is neither training nor advising Panama's boxers here ("I'm a sports ambassador!") -- rise out of his seat all puffed up like a Michelin Man with, well, Roberto Durán's grinning head on top, cackling about how he can't drink anymore, complaining about the heat, declaring that it's really time to go.
"Vámonos!" Durán yells to a buddy, and by now everyone's laughing together: The Cuban Olympic legend, the Cuban track star disgraced everywhere but Cuba, the New York Yankees executive who helped deal the Cuban sports system one of its gravest blows. Did I mention that it's Fidel Castro's birthday, too?
Oh, yes, and down on the field, Cuba's latest impassioned win is hurtling to a close, stirring the same unique mix of emotion -- anticipation and sadness and, for some, anger -- that will hover over every game at the Wukesong Baseball Field until these 2008 Olympics finish. Because each showdown, including Cuba's first-round Armageddon with Team USA on Friday -- won by Cuba 5-4 in 11 innings -- only takes Olympic baseball closer to its end.
The sport has been kicked out; baseball won't be played at the London Games in 2012 and likely won't be seen in an Olympics again. Now it's the top of the eighth of the marquee game on the tournament's first day, and three-time champion Cuba is about to grab a 4-2 win over pre-tournament favorite Japan and its usually dominating ace, Yu Darvish. But Durán, Mr. Stone Hands, is standing like any bored fan, patting his gut and once more saying No más. "Hey, come on," he says, almost whining. "Let's move!"
But he's annoying no one; everyone in the Cuban camp is shaking Durán's hand because the team's old lion, reliever Pedro Luis Lazo, is in and throwing 94 miles per hour still and it's good to have something break the tension, even if it's this loopy ex-pug with an earring the size of a nickel and a voice that could cut a brick. And considering all the subtle currents flowing through the "Olympic Friends" section behind home plate over the last three hours, who can blame them?
Consider: Before the game, two Yankees scouts, including Gordon Blakeley, the team's current vice president and the man most responsible for signing, in 1997, Cuba's greatest modern pitcher and disgraced defector, Orlando (El Duque) Hernández, wandered into the section and set up shop: Notepads, stopwatch, opinions at the ready.
The game started and the scouts started kibitzing back and forth, exchanging views on Darvish and everyone else playing, including Norge Luis Vera, the 37-year old Cuban starter who in frame, demeanor and, especially, his crane-like windup, is the living image of El Duque a decade ago. "Duque had better stuff," Blakeley said softly. "But Vera throws harder."
In walked Alberto (El Caballo) Juantorena, Cuba's greatest track name, not only the man who won the 400- and 800-meters at the 1976 games, but long one of Castro's most vocal defenders. "Bad pot-ta-toes, out-of-the-sack!" Juantorena, Cuba's vice-minister of sports, once described defectors to me, his voice rising in derisive sing-song against those seeking freedom of speech or assembly or a better way of life. "Pigeons, fly ... Awaaaaay!"
Now he came in a group from the Cuban delegation, the most conspicuous being Javier Sotomayor, still the world-record holder in the high jump, whose career ended in 2001 after a pair of positive drug tests -- cocaine and nandrolone -- that were dismissed by Castro as exile plotting and apparently had no effect on his place in the Cuban firmament.
Sotomayor sat in the front row. Juantorena sat a row behind him. Blakeley and his partner sat right behind him. Rightfielder Alexei Bell banged a triple off the wall and raced around the bases, patent-leather cleats gleaming, never pausing an instant, exactly the kind of fast-break baseball that Cuba made famous back when it won every international tournament that mattered.
It was as if 15 years had suddenly disappeared. There in one spot were all these faces and figures from mid-'90s Cuba, when the Communist system's sports Diaspora was at full dramatic flow -- families broken, the Little Red Machine seizing up like an engine losing oil, pitchers, boxers, weightlifters gone. In 1992 Cuba came in fifth in the medal count at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona; 12 years later in Athens it dropped out of the top 10. A sports agent got jail time in Cuba. Everyone was under suspicion. Major league teams were considered vultures.
The walk-up to Beijing sparked some kind of throwback. Seven soccer players stayed behind when the Cuban team left Tampa last March. The Cuban boxing program -- responsible for just fewer than half of Cuba's total Olympic gold medals all-time -- is at perhaps its worst juncture in history; five Cubans won gold in Athens but three since defected, one was kicked off the team for trying and one retired. No Cuban boxers were sent to the World Championships last fall for fear they wouldn't come back. Now Cuba has no returning gold medalists in Beijing and, for the first time, didn't qualify in all 11 Olympic weight classes.
The baseball program suffered the most recent blow: Last month three Cuban junior players -- two pitchers and an infielder -- defected at a tournament in Edmonton. All were considered pro material. Castro, writing in Granma, called their act "a despicable betrayal."