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Ill will

Cuba, U.S. renew hostilities on the baseball field

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Latest: Saturday September 23, 2000 11:31 AM


SYDNEY, Australia -- Tommy Lasorda wondered aloud -- in the press conference following Cuba's 6-1 win Saturday night over the Americans -- how anyone could possibly think his players had harbored any hard feelings toward the Cuban squad, when the two teams had never played before. Other than a Cuban pitcher throwing at the Americans' leading slugger; an ensuing emptying of dugouts; a rolling block by U.S. first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz; Cuban players taunting the Americans with raised middle fingers after a sensational catch by their center fielder, Yasser Gomez; Cuban pinch runner Yobal Duenas' slide -- withspikes Ty-Cobb high -- into catcher Pat Borders; and Borders' response, riddled with words not found in the Olympic charter -- well, maybe the manager had a point.

No hard feelings. This sort of thing goes on every day.

Of course, mostly it goes on in places where gang warfare is comon.

The Yankees vs. the Cubans made the Yankees vs. Red Sox rivalry look like a second-grade T-ball session. The Olympics hadn't witnessed anything this ugly since Canada marched into the stadium for the Opening Ceremonies in uniforms clearly inspired by Gilligan's Island reruns. There was an unsettling edge to victory that meant nothing on the one hand -- both teams had already qualified for the medal round, which starts Tuesday -- and everything on the other.

With two outs and no one on in the fourth, Cuban right-hander Jose Ibar, who had struck out seven of the first 12 hitters he faced and was throwing his fastball through the eye of a needle, dinged U.S. outfielder Ernie Young on the left shoulder blade, just under the "E." of his name, with his first pitch -- an act that screamed as loudly as the tournament-leading .533 batting average Young had carried into the at-bat. "It was bad," said Young, who proceeded to nudge the Cuban catcher, Ariel Pestano, on his way to first base, prompting the dugouts to empty. "You throw strikes all day and then I'm the beneficiary of a 94-mile-per-hour fastball on my shoulder blade. I know when I've been hit intentionally," said Young. "I'm from the streets. I know how to play dirty, too. That's the mentality of players who wish they were in our shoes. We get paid and they don't because of their regime. We have the best gloves, the best facilities."

But the Cubans have the best shirts. Or at least their sportswriters do.

Now, American sportswriters have nice shirts, too, with all kinds of stuff on them like swooshes, or the names of golf courses from which they might have cadged a freebie. But they don't have the anything nearly as provocative as the Cuban in the second row of the press section. A scribe from a weekly paper (if his credential was to be believed) was wearing a shirt with these words on the back: A Sydney por la gloria de la Patria.

To Sydney, for the glory of the country.

You won't see anything like that covering the Masters.

The world is not one big Happy Meal kind of place even if there does seem to be a McDonald's on every corner. There are still points to be scored, or runs. Young brought up the Castro regime. Cuba brought up its spikes and middle fingers. The Cubans played with a zeal that only the United States team in the other dugout can elicit, a smoldering passion that only something as large as the five-ringed Olympic circus can hold. "There's no antagonism on our part," Cuban manager Servio Borges said. "It's just sport and go out and play."

They might get a chance to just go out and play each other again in the medal round, a rematch -- possibly for gold. Lasorda, disingenuous in defeat, will have to come up with more believable material.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Farber is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and Check back daily to read Farber's behind-the-scene reports from Down Under.

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Archive: Sports Illustrated at the Olympics
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