International politics have pretty much been bleached out of the
Olympics, what with the breakup of the Soviet Union and a
general feeling of intercontinental cooperation. Used to be, the
medal count reflected industrial might, religious superiority,
even ethnic advantage. It was fiercely attended to. It was how
you kept score.
One of the few remnants of the old-time rivalries is Cuba versus
the U.S. However anachronistic it feels--communism versus
capitalism, hasn't that been decided?--the flag-waving is always
a little more feverish than usual when these two nations meet.
The rivalry is all the more intense since the Cubans tend to
dominate the American pastime. Of course, Cuba has what is
essentially a Dream Team of grizzled veterans, while the U.S.
tends to send to the Olympics freshly scrubbed kids just shy of
their first major league contracts. All the same, the Cubans
came to Atlanta with a 134-game winning streak in international
And no wonder. Throughout the tournament the Cubans had been
producing badmintonlike scores. Using aluminum bats, they were
arcing shots into the seats with frightening regularity. Orestes
Kindelan hit one into the upper deck of Atlanta-Fulton County
Stadium, where prior to the Olympics no ball had gone since
1971. "He has hit longer," said Cuban coach Jorge Fuentes.
In the round-robin game against the U.S., the Cuban Muscle
Crisis continued to unfold, with two batters homering in the
four-run first inning. The 10-run mercy rule loomed. In the same
inning Omar Luis drilled Jason Williams with his first pitch.
More ill will was evinced later when Cuba's Lazaro Vargas lost
his bat on an aborted swing and pitcher Jim Parque refused to
retrieve it though it lay at his feet.
August 4, 1996
It was 10-2 after the sixth inning, and it didn't look like
capitalism could save the day. But then the U.S. hit four home
runs in the next three innings and cut the lead to 10-8. And
communism, suddenly, did not look safe. But Cuban closer Pedro
Lazo restored world order, striking out the two final batters
with two on in the bottom of the ninth. And that was that, for
now. A political point had been made once more. That's what this
was about, right? "Absolutely," said Fuentes, grinning.