The gold medal baseball game at the Pan American Games was not even two innings old last Saturday night when the giddy crowd in Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano began to count out the Puerto Ricans. "Uno! Dos! Tres!" they chanted, like 40,000 boxing referees, and the ritual was not at all premature. German Mesa, Cuba's tiny shortstop, had just launched a homer high over the leftfield fence, the second of seven the Cubans would hit in pummeling Puerto Rico 18-3. Which was stronger Saturday night, the aroma of Cuban cigars or the wallop of Cuban bats? Both were smoking. The game lasted close to four hours, and by the time Fidel Castro presented the Cuban team its medals, it was almost 1 a.m. Yet nobody seemed to mind.
"Baseball is a religion in Cuba," said Dick Case, executive director of the U.S. Baseball Federation. "If the Cubans win 300 gold medals but lose in baseball, it won't be a successful Pan Am Games for them."
One hopes the Cubans were satisfied. They didn't win 300 gold medals, but they did amass 140 of them, 10 more than the U.S., which in the nine previous Pan Am Games had pretty much dominated the medal totals. The U.S., however, sent second-string teams to Havana in some sports, while the Cubans fielded their best athletes, many of whom were very good indeed. In weightlifting the Cubans won 29 of 30 golds, and they fared almost as well in boxing, taking 11 of 12. The U.S. did clean up in swimming (24 of 32 golds), and it beat the Cubans in the overall medal count, 352 to 265.
But baseball is what the Cubans care about most, the sport in which they are widely regarded as the world's best at the amateur level, having won 20 of 23 world championships and, now, six straight Pan Am titles. Next summer in Barcelona, baseball enters the Olympics as a full-fledged medal sport. The top four teams in Havana—Cuba, Puerto Rico, the U.S. and the Dominican Republic—will make up half the Olympic field. The Cubans, who boycotted the last two Games, will almost certainly go as favorites.
"They have a great abundance of talent," says Stanford junior Jeff Hammonds, the U.S. centerfielder. Adds Long Beach State's Jason Giambi, the U.S.'s designated hitter, "Everyone in their lineup, from one to nine, pounds the ball."
Indeed, the eighth batter in Cuba's lineup, rightfielder Ermidelio Urrutia, went 6 for 6 on Saturday night, with three homers and seven RBIs. Over 10 games the Cubans outscored their opponents 145 to 27, while batting .399 as a team.
"If anything limits them, it's lack of competition," says University of Miami coach Ron Fraser, who will coach the U.S. Olympic team in Barcelona. Fraser singled out for special praise the Cuban third baseman, Omar Linares. "He has all the tools," he said. "He would only get better with tougher competition."
That is the dilemma of Cuban baseball. No one, not even the country's most loyal fans, believes that Linares and the other Cubans are testing themselves against the best the world has to offer. The top prospects from both the U.S. and other Latin American countries soon graduate from amateur to professional ball. Because the Cubans are prohibited by their government from playing pro ball in the U.S., their only yardsticks are teams that are younger and less experienced than they are. All the players on the U.S. team were college students. Their average age was 20, the Cubans' was 28.
To no one's surprise, on Aug. 11 the U.S. and Cuba provided the best game of the tournament, with Cuba winning 3-2 after a spectacular eighth-inning double play started by Mesa squelched an American rally. Hopes for a rematch disappeared in the third inning of last Friday afternoon's semifinal between the U.S. and Puerto Rico when Jeff Ware, an Old Dominion senior and the ace of the American pitching staff, gave up a grand slam to Puerto Rican first baseman Efrain Garcia. The Puerto Ricans went on to win 7-1. The U.S. earned the bronze medal on Saturday with a 2-1 victory over the Dominican Republic in 15 innings. Chris Roberts, a pitcher and outfielder from Florida State, drove in Hammonds from second base with the winning run.
That game set the stage for Saturday evening's showcase of Cuban power. "If they ever come over to the U.S., there's going to be a Cuban player on every team," says Mike Brito, the Los Angeles Dodger scout who discovered Fernando Valenzuela in Mexico.
Brito has visited Cuba three times in the past six years. He names four Cubans as major league prospects: Linares, second baseman Antonio Pacheco, Mesa and righthanded pitcher Lazaro Valle, who sat out the entire Pan Am Games with a blood clot in his right arm. "It's unfortunate you haven't seen Valle," said Hammonds, who has seen him in other international competition. "He throws 96 miles an hour, even in the ninth inning, and his slider is up in the high 80s."
One Cuban who presumably will get a chance to test himself against the best is Rene Arocha, a 25-year-old pitcher who defected while touring the U.S. with the Cuban team last month but because of immigration restrictions cannot play ball in this country until next season. However, some scouts aren't that high on him, which certainly isn't the case with Linares, who is generally regarded as the country's best player. Linares, 23, has batted .366, with 201 home runs, over nine seasons in the National Series, Cuba's 16-team league, which Brito compares to AA ball in the U.S. He has surpassed .400 five times.
Linares's full nickname is el Ni‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o Prodigio de Vueltabajo ("the Prodigious Boy from Vueltabajo"). But to the old men who gather each day under the catalpa trees in Havana's Central Park to talk and fret and argue about baseball, he is simply el Ni‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o.
Linares was only 14 when he began playing in the National Series and 17 when he made his stunning debut with the Cuban national team, batting .410 in nine games in a 1985 tournament in Edmonton. The Toronto Blue Jays were so impressed that they offered him a unique contract: He would play only home games, thus avoiding travel to the United States. Linares, who has since been elected a deputy in the Poder Popular, Cuba's parliament, turned Toronto down.
The old men under the catalpa trees aren't sure they want to share el Ni‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o with the world. One of them, Amable Morales, chooses his words carefully. "I would be pleased to see him play sometime against American teams," says the man, "but not full-time."
Linares, Brito believes, would need a little time in the minors. "But start him eating American food and working with weights, he can be a star," says Brito. "I just hope he doesn't wait too long."