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With their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, the players were touting the game as the Cuban Death Match. Facing each other were 42-year-old Mike Cuellar and 34-year-old Oscar Zamora. Cuellar, the masterful screwballer, was a three-time 20-game winner for the Orioles a while back and in 1969 shared the American League Cy Young Award. The less-renowned Zamora played for the Astros as recently as last season. He now has a thriving shoe business in Miami and finds time to pitch only every eighth day or so.
This Latin showdown didn't occur in an oldtimers' game in Baltimore or on a dusty diamond in San Juan, but in Miami, where the Amigos were opening their second home stand of the year against the San Juan Boricuas. And who in the world are the Amigos and the Boricuas? Well, they are none other than the first- and fourth-place teams, respectively, in the fledgling Inter-American League. The Inter-American is different from other minor leagues, not only because it is peopled largely by players with familiar and semifamiliar names, but also because it has clubs in Panama City, Panama; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and Caracas and Maracaibo, Venezuela, as well as in Miami and San Juan.
On this night a predominantly Latin crowd of 3,152—the Amigos' largest turnout of the season—came to see the new show in town, and they weren't disappointed. After giving up two runs in the first inning, Zamora settled down and beat San Juan on six hits, two of them by Bobby Tolan, late of the Cards, Reds, Padres, Phils, Pirates and Nankai Hawks. Inspired by their cheerleaders, the Hot and Juicy Wendy's Girls, the Amigos shelled Cuellar in the fifth when First Baseman Brock Pemberton, who played for the Mets in '75, hit a grand-slam home run. The loss was the first in five decisions for Cuellar, who has been pitching with a pulled hamstring since his third start.
Many of the Cuban expatriates in the crowd had seen Cuellar pitch for the Havana Sugar Kings in 1957 and '58, and the game had the same festive atmosphere that characterizes games in Cuba. The spectators beat out Latin rhythms on conga drums and cowbells and reacted vociferously to events both on and off the field. When a shapely young woman in hot pants and halter top left her seat, she got a rousing round of applause. Her return was greeted by a standing ovation that stopped the game.
Unfortunately, customs and immigration officials aren't as thrilled by the goings-on in the Inter-American League. When the Boricuas left Caracas for Miami, the authorities kept Cuellar from boarding the team's flight, and he barely made it to the game on time. Nobody knows exactly what the holdup was, except that it concerned visas, which are a persistent problem for the Cuban-born players in the league. Miami backup Catcher Jorge Curbelo hasn't made it into Venezuela in two tries. In addition, a few members of the Santo Domingo Azucareros failed to show for a game in Puerto Rico, reportedly because of visa difficulties. Visas aren't the Azucareros' only problems; the club's discombobulated management didn't send box scores to the league until the season was six weeks old.
Immigration and front-office foul-ups are just a few of the IAL's many growing pains. After only six weeks of the season, two owners, two general managers and one manager have been replaced, and the Boricuas have moved some of their games from San Juan to various sites in the interior of the Commonwealth because they were drawing only about 200 fans a game. In fact, attendance has been poor everywhere except Caracas, where the Metropolitanos are attracting nearly 7,400 a game, 2,400 more than any other Triple A team and 3,500 more than the Oakland A's.
Traveling has also been rough, even by minor league standards. In most places, the hotels and clubhouses have been decidedly second-rate, and the Amigos have yet to take a flight that wasn't at least an hour late. Because of the vagaries of Caribbean air travel, they have started one game at 10 p.m., had another suspended in the eighth inning and had to fly to a third in two shifts, with the second group not arriving until minutes before game time.
Such troubles are not wholly unexpected considering that the infant IAL was hastily put together over the winter. It is the brainchild of Bobby Maduro, who owned the Sugar Kings in pre-Castro Cuba and from 1967 to '78 was Bowie Kuhn's assistant for inter-American baseball. To get the new league under way, Maduro had to overcome strong opposition from the Caribbean winter leagues, which view the Inter-American as a competitor for Latin players' services and Latin fans' affections, and from several major league owners, who felt they had a corner on baseball talent in the Caribbean.
Unlike teams in Triple A leagues based solely in the U.S. and Canada, those in the IAL are not affiliated with big league organizations. As a result, Inter-American rosters are composed almost entirely of players who have been released or overlooked by major league teams. And that's precisely what Maduro wanted.
"This league was desperately needed," he says, "and I wrote a letter to the commissioner 10 years ago telling him so. When I started in baseball, there were 56 minor leagues. Now there are only 18. Today, if you're not good enough to make it to the majors in three years, you're eliminated from consideration."