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But Cuban sports is also José Ramón Fernández, a hero of the Bay of Pigs and the president of the Pan Am Games organizing committee, explaining why baseball players from Cuba won't be allowed to compete in the major leagues. "It is not right to earn money with sports," says Fernández. "The spirit of competition is more important than money. Winning is reward enough."
Cuban sports is Gilberto Dihigo, a sports journalist, toasting his father, Negro League star and Hall of Famer Martín Dihigo, on the 20th anniversary of his death. "Would you like to see some pictures of him?" asks Gilberto. Of course, and there his father is, standing proud and slightly apart from his teammates in New York and Veracruz and Havana. Among the pictures, one name catches the eye: Cocaína García. "A very famous pitcher," says Gilberto. "They say his curveball had the effect of a drug on the batter."
Cuban sports is the Provincial School for Gymnastics, housed in the magnificent building that was once the Spanish Businessmen's Club in Havana. There, among the ornate columns and gilded molding, coaches nurture gymnasts through their exercises. "It is hard not to be inspired in a place like this," says René Sansón, a coach who is himself a former national champion. Then he turns to watch his most famous pupil, 12-year-old Annia Portuondo, on the vault. Soaring through the air, Annia is at home among the arches. She is the national women's champion but will be too young to compete in the 1992 Olympics, which is a shame, because she is someone the world should see.
At the other end of the spectrum of Cuban sports is Félix Savón, a devastating heavyweight and, some say, the heir to Teófilo Stevenson, Cuba's super heavyweight gold medalist in the 1972, '76 and '80 Olympics. Sitting on a porch at the boxing complex outside of Havana, Savón recalls the night he decided to become a boxer. "The sports school wanted me to begin training as a fighter, but my mother did not want me to. She said, 'Don't come home if you want to box.' That night I sat in a held, trying to decide what to do. I fell asleep, and when I woke up, I was a boxer." Then something dawns on Savón. "It must have been like that for Fidel, the nights he spent in the mountains before the Revolution."
Cuban sports is still very much Fidel. A sign outside Cerro Pelado, the "Colorado Springs of Cuba," proclaims: FIDEL ATLETA NÚMERO UNO. One of Castro's many nicknames in Cuba is El Caballo (The Horse), because he carries the fortunes of his nation. Similarly, the success of Cuban sports rides on his love for athletics. According to legend, he was once scouted as a pitcher by Joe Cambria of the Washington Senators, so one can imagine how different the world would have been had Castro become another Camilo Pascual.
Over the years Castro's passion for baseball has given way to an infatuation with the NBA, thanks to a satellite dish given to him by his duck-hunting companion, Ted Turner. But Castro still got a kick out of the baseball cards given to him by a U.S. Olympic delegation last spring. His pack contained a card of Jose Canseco, born in Havana in 1964.
It's Pollyannaish to think that the old first baseman George Bush might someday want to talk baseball with Castro. That's not likely, not as long as anger and distrust are the official policies of both governments. (Cuba was not allowed to buy bowling equipment from the U.S. last year, perhaps on the theory that the bowling balls could be loaded into cannons—Remember the Maine.)
So far and yet so near. On a wall behind the stands at the Estadio Tropical is a brass plaque, its inscription made nearly indecipherable by grime and tarnish. Upon close inspection, the plaque's message is one of friendship, an elaborate thank-you note to the Tropical Brewing Company for erecting this magnificent stadium in 1930. It's signed by Chuck Klein, Rabbit Maranville, Heinie Manush, Paul Waner, Pie Traynor and a dozen other major leaguers who played in Cuba. Maybe it's time to polish the plaque.