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 volley-bailer 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 an argument.
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.