In the new homeland of Cuba's best pitcher, in the adopted home state of Fidel Castro's daughter, in the sold-out home stadium of Castro's own cable guy, Cuba and the U.S. played baseball last Sunday. And to this hot stove, Cold War rivalry came...warmth. Warmth was unexpected, but warmth eventually pinch-hit for wariness.
After all, only three weeks had passed since Cuban righthander Rolando Arrojo defected to America while his team was playing in Albany, Ga. And once again last week, Cubans were going over fences: Designated hitter Orestes Kindelan hit two home runs into the upper deck of Atlanta- Fulton County Stadium, something no major leaguer has done since 1971. One of those balls alit 521 feet from home plate, but Kindelan said the shot was no more remarkable than his own initials, that he has indeed hit balls farther. "In Puerto Rico," says Cuba manager Jorge Fuentes, "he hit one that was actually uncommon."
In Atlanta the actually uncommon was commonplace. The baseballs themselves were, as NBC might put it, implausibly live, jumping off aluminum bats, having been soft-served by Dutch and Italian pitchers, in a ballpark nicknamed the Launching Pad. You do the math. The U.S. hit five home runs in the first inning against Japan last Thursday, including back-to-back-to-back-to-back jacks, breaking the Olympic record for backs set earlier in the tournament by Korean shortstop Jae-Ho Back, who, naturally, wore BACK on his back.
But back to the point, which is that Cuba and the U.S. are the Sampras and Graf of Olympic baseball. They are head and shoulders above the rest of the eight-team field, with the added attraction that they actually play, to say nothing of play each other. On Sunday, Cuba led the U.S. 10-2 and endured a two-men-on, ninth-inning rally to survive and win 10-8. The game was almost certainly a preview of Friday's gold medal game, except that the U.S. was saving its ace—Clemson junior righthander Kris Benson, a Georgia native who was taken by the Pittsburgh Pirates with the No. 1 overall pick in June's amateur draft.
Cuba did throw its ace, or one of them, anyway: Omar Luis. It is difficult to say who Cuba's best pitcher is now, since Arrojo went el lobo solo during Cuba's pre-Olympic exhibition tour. On that tour the defending Olympic gold medalists handed the U.S. its only three losses in 31 games. The U.S., in turn, beat Cuba twice, leaving no prohibitive favorite for gold on Friday and heightening interest in who might show for the showdown: Alina Fernandez Revuelta, Castro's daughter-in-exile, who chose to settle outside Atlanta? Perhaps Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner, who supplied Fidel with a dish to watch TNT and CNN? How about El Presidente himself? Who can say?
The Cubans like to enshroud themselves in myth and mystery, obscuring themselves in the smoke of a contraband Cohiba. And so, depending upon your source, Cuba came into the Olympics with a winning streak in nonexhibition international play of 123, or 131, or 140 games. The real figure is as elusive as a boxer's birth date. U.S. manager Skip Bertman of LSU may as well have been speaking literally when he said, " Cuba has an unbelievable record." But it would be churlish to begrudge Cuba this singular prosperity when the nation's players are given, for their troubles, an apartment, electricity, the use of a car and pay roughly equal to eight dollars a month.
By contrast, many players on Team USA (which includes the top four selections in the draft and seven of the top 10) will become millionaire major leaguers. The chances that those players will not eventually become "surly" are, by their own manager's estimation, "slim." But for now members of the U.S. squad are kindly and anonymous college kids, content to spend their leisure time shooting (inadvertently) Monica Seles in the back while playing laser tag in the Athletes' Village.
"People say there's pressure on us," says leftfielder Mark Kotsay of Cal State-Fullerton, who was selected ninth in the draft, by the Florida Marlins. "There's no pressure. Nobody cares about Olympic baseball. I try to give people a USA baseball pin, but nobody wants it."
The U.S. did draw an average of 45,000 fans to each of its games, including sellouts against Japan and Cuba. But the sport does not help to inflate the Olympic TV contracts (none of the games were televised in the U.S.). As a result, 1996 is almost certain to be the final all-amateur Olympic baseball tournament, which is not to say that the U.S. will field a Dream Team in 2000, as major league teams will be loathe to release their already-surly stars for two weeks in September. Thus, the U.S. and Cuba's rivalry may survive one more Olympiad. But it is not likely to be the same.
Bertman, for one, has floated the migraine-inducing notion of holding the baseball tournament in the Winter Olympics—in, say, Phoenix during the Salt Lake City Games of 2002. This would be perfectly consistent with the weirdness of international baseball, in which taters are measured in meters, TV-savvy Italian fans hold CIAO MAMMA signs for the cameras when foul balls are ripped toward their seats, and a 10-run mercy rule ends games after seven innings. If it hadn't existed before this Olympics, Amnesty International would have invented the mercy rule, given game scores of 20-6, 19-8, 18-2, 16-6, 15-3 and 15-5 (twice).