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U.S., Cuba united at last in baseball's final Olympic hours

BEIJING -- For a scene to be truly surreal, it has to go beyond the realm of what we call odd or strange. There has to be a feeling of displacement. Time must bend a bit. And there's got to be a bewildering wrench thrown in for good measure, something so incongruous that its absurdity somehow balances out the vague sense of menace in the air.

What am I talking about? I'm talking about being at a baseball game in Beijing, China, and having legendary pro boxer Roberto Durán -- who is neither training nor advising Panama's boxers here ("I'm a sports ambassador!") -- rise out of his seat all puffed up like a Michelin Man with, well, Roberto Durán's grinning head on top, cackling about how he can't drink anymore, complaining about the heat, declaring that it's really time to go.

"Vámonos!" Durán yells to a buddy, and by now everyone's laughing together: The Cuban Olympic legend, the Cuban track star disgraced everywhere but Cuba, the New York Yankees executive who helped deal the Cuban sports system one of its gravest blows. Did I mention that it's Fidel Castro's birthday, too?

Oh, yes, and down on the field, Cuba's latest impassioned win is hurtling to a close, stirring the same unique mix of emotion -- anticipation and sadness and, for some, anger -- that will hover over every game at the Wukesong Baseball Field until these 2008 Olympics finish. Because each showdown, including Cuba's first-round Armageddon with Team USA on Friday -- won by Cuba 5-4 in 11 innings -- only takes Olympic baseball closer to its end.

The sport has been kicked out; baseball won't be played at the London Games in 2012 and likely won't be seen in an Olympics again. Now it's the top of the eighth of the marquee game on the tournament's first day, and three-time champion Cuba is about to grab a 4-2 win over pre-tournament favorite Japan and its usually dominating ace, Yu Darvish. But Durán, Mr. Stone Hands, is standing like any bored fan, patting his gut and once more saying No más. "Hey, come on," he says, almost whining. "Let's move!"

But he's annoying no one; everyone in the Cuban camp is shaking Durán's hand because the team's old lion, reliever Pedro Luis Lazo, is in and throwing 94 miles per hour still and it's good to have something break the tension, even if it's this loopy ex-pug with an earring the size of a nickel and a voice that could cut a brick. And considering all the subtle currents flowing through the "Olympic Friends" section behind home plate over the last three hours, who can blame them?

Consider: Before the game, two Yankees scouts, including Gordon Blakeley, the team's current vice president and the man most responsible for signing, in 1997, Cuba's greatest modern pitcher and disgraced defector, Orlando (El Duque) Hernández, wandered into the section and set up shop: Notepads, stopwatch, opinions at the ready.

The game started and the scouts started kibitzing back and forth, exchanging views on Darvish and everyone else playing, including Norge Luis Vera, the 37-year old Cuban starter who in frame, demeanor and, especially, his crane-like windup, is the living image of El Duque a decade ago. "Duque had better stuff," Blakeley said softly. "But Vera throws harder."

In walked Alberto (El Caballo) Juantorena, Cuba's greatest track name, not only the man who won the 400- and 800-meters at the 1976 games, but long one of Castro's most vocal defenders. "Bad pot-ta-toes, out-of-the-sack!" Juantorena, Cuba's vice-minister of sports, once described defectors to me, his voice rising in derisive sing-song against those seeking freedom of speech or assembly or a better way of life. "Pigeons, fly ... Awaaaaay!"

Now he came in a group from the Cuban delegation, the most conspicuous being Javier Sotomayor, still the world-record holder in the high jump, whose career ended in 2001 after a pair of positive drug tests -- cocaine and nandrolone -- that were dismissed by Castro as exile plotting and apparently had no effect on his place in the Cuban firmament.

Sotomayor sat in the front row. Juantorena sat a row behind him. Blakeley and his partner sat right behind him. Rightfielder Alexei Bell banged a triple off the wall and raced around the bases, patent-leather cleats gleaming, never pausing an instant, exactly the kind of fast-break baseball that Cuba made famous back when it won every international tournament that mattered.

It was as if 15 years had suddenly disappeared. There in one spot were all these faces and figures from mid-'90s Cuba, when the Communist system's sports Diaspora was at full dramatic flow -- families broken, the Little Red Machine seizing up like an engine losing oil, pitchers, boxers, weightlifters gone. In 1992 Cuba came in fifth in the medal count at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona; 12 years later in Athens it dropped out of the top 10. A sports agent got jail time in Cuba. Everyone was under suspicion. Major league teams were considered vultures.

The walk-up to Beijing sparked some kind of throwback. Seven soccer players stayed behind when the Cuban team left Tampa last March. The Cuban boxing program -- responsible for just fewer than half of Cuba's total Olympic gold medals all-time -- is at perhaps its worst juncture in history; five Cubans won gold in Athens but three since defected, one was kicked off the team for trying and one retired. No Cuban boxers were sent to the World Championships last fall for fear they wouldn't come back. Now Cuba has no returning gold medalists in Beijing and, for the first time, didn't qualify in all 11 Olympic weight classes.

The baseball program suffered the most recent blow: Last month three Cuban junior players -- two pitchers and an infielder -- defected at a tournament in Edmonton. All were considered pro material. Castro, writing in Granma, called their act "a despicable betrayal."

On Wednesday night, the two scouts watched. Japan came back to tie the game twice. The two scouts casually pronounced their takes on the Japanese and Cuban talent, scribbled notes. Juantorena has a good command of English, but the men didn't know. Every once in a while he'd turn, eyes narrowed, and listen. He wasn't smiling. Then he'd turn back to the field and, tailoring his call for each player, grit his teeth to produce piercing, trilling bird calls to let Cuba know he was watching.

When designated hitter Alfredo Despaigne broke open the game with a two-run single to left in the fifth, Juantorena stood and tried twice to whistle, but his mouth had gone dry. He stood until he had worked up enough spit, and then cut loose.

Juantorena is a track man first, of course, but he knows that baseball is the heart of Cuban sports. It's also the place where the U.S. and Cuba have had their most memorable sporting clashes, and have developed a grudging respect. Pitcher Jim Abbott is still a hero in Cuba for his heroics during an exhibition tour there in 1987, and though baseball didn't become a medal sport until 1992, the tradition of U.S.-Cuba clashes invested Olympic tournaments with decades-long passion. When the U.S. finally broke through and upset Cuba for the gold medal in Sydney in 2000, manager Tommy Lasorda pronounced it "bigger than the World Series."

The U.S. and Cuba have a long and twisted history, of course, two nations bound by geography, familiarity and fear. Castro survived for nearly 50 years in power by stressing his independence of U.S. influence, so the turn against Olympic baseball can only be viewed ironically: The same anti-Americanism that sustained Fidel was a factor -- along with the lack of major league participants and a poor drug-testing policy -- when the IOC ejected baseball in 2005.

Now, despite their ongoing tensions, the U.S. and Cuba have no choice but to join together in the faint hope of reinstating baseball for the 2016 Olympic Games. The IOC will make its final vote on the matter in October of '09, and until then, says International Baseball Federation president Harvey Schiller, you can expect an intense lobbying effort. In the dugout before Wednesday's Japan-Cuba game Schiller, who helped put together New York's unsuccessful bid for the 2012 games, shook hands with Cuba Olympic Committee president José Fernández. "I said to him, 'We'll work together on this,'" Schiller said a day later.

Whether it's worth the effort is another question. The World Baseball Classic, scheduled for its second edition next year, was a great success in its '06 debut. Cuba and its fans got what they've always wanted -- the chance for their players to prove themselves against major leaguers -- and advanced to the final against Japan while the U.S. team underachieved. Without the existence of the WBC, Cuba would be left bereft by the loss of the Olympic baseball tournament. But now its national game has, in some ways, an even more vital chance to prove itself than ever.

Still, the Olympics is the world's greatest sports festival, providing for Cuba and the U.S. a political and social dynamic unlike any other. When Cuba and the U.S. meet on Friday you can expect fireworks.

"It's Yankees-Red Sox, a rivalry born of pride and mutual respect; we enjoy beating them as much as they enjoy beating us," USA baseball executive director Paul Seiler says of Cuba. "They're not down. And any fool who thinks they are will be at the wrong end of the score at the end of the day."

And any fool who thinks they aren't as motivated? All you had to see were all those Cuban officials in the ninth inning, just after they got the news that Cuba's women's volleyball team had upset China across town. A revenge win over Japan in baseball here, and now this? Juantorena and Sotomayor and all the rest of the delegation stood and slapped hands, shouting like children. It was the most simple moment on a complex night, and but for one exception, the most memorable.

Just minutes before, Blakeley and his colleague packed up their belongings and headed for the passageway out. But then something made Blakeley stop, turn and walk back over to where Juantorena was sitting. He held out his hand. Juantorena, almost before he could think, shook it, nodding. Everyone around them seemed to freeze.

"Gordon Blakeley with the Yankees," said the scout. "I saw you ..." He couldn't find the words. He removed his hand and pantomimed it, arms pumping: The indelible sight of El Caballo racing around that Montreal track 32 years ago. Juantorena smiled, but didn't say a word. Blakeley trailed off then, then he backed away, turned and left. A surreal sight, indeed, and one worth traveling around the world to see.

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