Base instincts

If one must do the difficult work of bearing witness to history, it's hard to imagine a better place to do it than from high in the back of the grandstand at Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano. It is the bottom of the eighth inning of the Baltimore Orioles' exhibition game against the Cuban national team, the tying run is at third with two outs, and the mighty Omar Linares Izquierdo is at the plate, facing Baltimore closer Mike Timlin.

With Will Gonzalez, of Philadelphia's Al Dia newspaper, I've ducked out the side door of the air-conditioned press box to sit in the open. The field is bright in the early-afternoon sun, with shadows creeping across third-base foul ground. A fresh, stiff breeze is coming in from the ocean, pulling the ballpark's flags and banners toward us.

Rows and rows down below, if we crane our necks, we can see the crisply flat top of Fidel Castro's army cap and the bright teal shirt of Baltimore's mayor, Kurt Schmoke. To our left, in among the Cuban spectators, there is a young man in full military fatigues, the same color as Fidel's -- the strange, vivid Cuban-army green, which shimmers when you see it firsthand but turns olive drab on TV. He is scanning the stadium bowl and the high-rise balconies off to the north with a stubby pair of binoculars.

In the 48 hours since we touched down at Aeropuerto Jose Marti on the press corps plane we've gotten used to such little details. This major-league visit to Cuba, after 40 years of estrangement, may be a step toward normalizing relations, but it is by no means normal. For all the Orioles' protestations that this is an ordinary game, the baseball summit is a full-blown international event, thick with intrigue, subplots and subtext.

Indeed, the strangest thing, as the mighty Linares stands in, is that the moment is so straightforward. The 32-year-old third baseman is the veteran hero of this national team, a lifetime .371 hitter with 377 career home runs. If the Cubans are going to prove they belong on the field with the major leaguers, this is where they'll do it.

Before the game, almost nobody seemed to think such a moment of truth would come. Observers both American and Cuban generally poor-mouthed their respective representatives with all the practiced despair of college football coaches. Between the holes on the Orioles' spring roster and the trademark base-running aggressiveness of the Cubans, the U.S. sports press figured the O's would be unmanned; if they played 10 games, one prominent writer confided, the Cubans might win all 10.

On the streets of Havana, meanwhile, rumors about the major-leaguers' godlike abilities had reached wild proportions. Wasn't it true, a cabbie asked us, that the O's scheduled starter, Scott Erickson, threw 98 miles per hour? Besides, Cubans lamented, with their national baseball championship going on, stars from the country's top two teams were unavailable. The government had set things up so as not to field its best possible team, people said knowingly, in order to have an excuse for when the team lost.

The Americans have turned out, as advertised, to be much bigger and stronger than the Cubans. In their road grays with black hats, the Orioles look massive and forbidding. But between the soft Cuban baseballs, the wind and the nasty pitching of Jose Contreras, their offense has been limited to one two-run home run by Charles Johnson. The stage is set for a David-and-Goliath upset.

Watching, I feel torn. Partly it's because I'm an O's fan, but there's something more to it. Two days and three nights in Havana, even in the circumscribed orbit of a diplomatic event, have a way of making one deeply aware of one's Americanness. You may think the embargo is stupid; you may believe U.S. policy toward Cuba has historically been brutal and asinine. It doesn't matter. You can't go native. You are Goliath.

Linares falls behind 0-1, evens the count, then fouls a ball off his foot for strike two. He hangs in and works the count full. And then, on the payoff pitch, he rips a ground ball to the left side. Third baseman Jeff Reboulet dives, but the ball is already through the infield. The tying run scores. The crowd erupts. I stand, awkwardly, and join the cheering.

Using the word "Americans" to mean people from the United States is, of course, a grossly self-centered, American thing to do. Nevertheless, on the streets of Havana, photographer Jefferson Steele and I find ourselves hailed as "Americanos." The Cubans are, by and large, embarrassingly tolerant of our Americano oafishness. The extent of our Spanish skills, when we're not going around with Will, is limited to what Jefferson remembers from junior-high school.

The misunderstandings cut both ways. Our press credentials and visas are a soup of faulty translations. I become "Tony Scocca" ; my middle name, Jerome, turns into "Jerime." Thanks to a mix-up over the Spanish use of maternal names, Jefferson becomes Jefferson Jackson.

But people want to cut through the difficulties, either by trying out their English on us or by working very slowly through the Spanish, putting up with our blank stares and helpless gesturing. Almost no one engages in a fluent side-comment at our expense, at least not while we're in earshot.

The fact that Cubans are nutty for baseball is one of the few things that the average Americano knows about our island neighbor. The reports are absolutely true. Approaching Havana, the press corps, goggling out the airplane windows with a rare unjadedness, was rewarded with a country landscape full of ballfields, too many to count, in among the white matchsticks of palm-tree trunks and the barn-red earth of the plowed fields. One field had a short porch in right.

And aerial surveying of formal diamonds doesn't begin to capture it. Cubans were playing ball everywhere along the highway from the airport, in parks and lots and yards. To the suspicious mind, it suggested a Potemkin village, some orchestrated attempt to awe the Americans. If so, it was thoroughly done. Wherever we went, all weekend, there were kids playing ball. They played in alleys and in the spaces between buildings, where one house in a row of homes had collapsed.

In the States, the recurring description of the exhibition game is that it will be, for the Cubans, equivalent to the seventh game of the World Series. This is easily grasped and flat-out wrong. For the Cubans, the equivalent of the World Series is the Finales, the Cuban-league championship series. On our first two evenings, we make it to Estadio Latinoamericano for the first and second games of the Finales.

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This year's series pits Havana's Industriales club against the team from Santiago, the leading city of the eastern end of the island. The regional rivalry is deep and serious. Each team's supporters occupy different sides of the grandstand: The Industriales fans on the third-base side, behind the home-team dugout, and the Santiago fans on the first-base side.

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The outfield seats are only part full. This is, someone explains, because fans are boycotting the series to protest the way that tickets to the Orioles game have been distributed. The government is passing out seats by invitation, to Communist Party members, rather than making them available to the general public. The regular fans, who sometimes wait hours to buy tickets, are out in the cold.

Even at two-thirds full, Estadio Latinoamericano is deafening. Each side has its own pep band, mostly consisting of drums and assorted metal implements to pound on, with a scattering of horns and noisemakers. One Industriales fan has rigged a bicycle pump to blast out a high, treble-y, skull-rattling sound. Jefferson points out that at Oriole Park back in Baltimore, fans have been barred from bringing so much as a cardboard cutout of a broom for celebrating a series sweep.

Again and again, the Industriales section baits the Santiago fans with chants of "Pa-la-TEE-no! Pa-la-TEE-no!" This is a regional insult: People from Havana refer to eastern Cuba as the Orient and to the people there as Palatinos, Palestinians.

At least that's how it's explained to us during game one by a group of maybe 9-year-old boys in the outfield bleachers. Will tries to follow up with more questions, but one of the boys suggests we shut up and watch the game.

At the pregame press conference on Sunday, somebody -- most likely from television -- asks Orioles manager Ray Miller if he's aware that the Cuban general public has been denied the chance to attend the exhibition, where the American public would have been free to attend.

"I can tell you, in the U.S. it is not free," Miller says. "It's $30 a ticket."

There is a popular notion in the United States that wealth and comfort have corrupted our ballplayers, so that they play the game slowly, sloppily and arrogantly. An anthropologist of sports looking for evidence to support this spoiled-millionaire theory should stay away from Cuba.

The pace of Cuban baseball is dilatory, in a way that would be familiar to any fan of the American League. Batters step out of the box. Pitchers step off the mound. Players huddle and confer at every hint of action. Nobody seems in the least bit of a hurry to take the field or to leave the on-deck circle.

As for the matter of execution, in two games of championship play, the serious and devoted Cubans seem to miss the cutoff man at least as often as lazy Americans do, to say nothing of covering the wrong base, misplaying pitches in the dirt and getting utterly reckless on the basepaths. The baseball purist can take still less comfort in their demeanor: In game two, the designated hitter for Santiago, a strapping fellow by the name of Kindelan, crushes a home run to left field and watches it all the way, a la Barry Bonds, not budging from the batter's box until it lands in the stands.

In swagger and gamesmanship, in fact, the Cubans go further than major-leaguers have. It appears to be standard practice for a batter, seeing what he thinks is ball four, to drop the bat and sprint toward first base before the umpire even makes the call -- a move that, in the majors, tends to provoke the ump into calling a strike, and leads a pitcher to start headhunting.

None of this is to say that Cuban baseball is a disreputable and inferior version of the major-league game. The Cubans play with verve and brio, and take a devil-may-care approach to run-scoring. They like to play small-ball, relying on singles and sacrificing to move runners along, but it's used as an attacking strategy, not a conservative one. There's nothing unusual in seeing a runner, dutifully having advanced around the horn to third, attempt to steal home, and nobody seems annoyed when he gets thrown out.

The effects of the U.S. trade embargo seem to be everywhere and nowhere at once. The Cuban roads, famously, are full of prerevolution American cars, mixed with tiny off-brand Eurasian supereconomy cars and decrepit things from the old Eastern Bloc. Buildings are falling where they stand. Everything needs a coat of paint. As we barrel through the dim Havana streets in a taxi at night, past crumbling balconies and fancy ironwork in puddles of cheap fluorescent light, the city looks like the New Orleans slums in the movie of "A Streetcar Named Desire" -- lost in the timelessness of poverty.

Yet, perversely, some American stuff gets through. In the crowds at Estadio Latinoamericano, I spot a range of old NBA replica jerseys: Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, John Starks. T-shirts from the University of Texas and the movie "Waiting to Exhale" have made their way here, behind the last scrap of Iron Curtain. A guard at a military base wears a Fila shirt with his fatigue pants. I lose track of all the Tommy Hilfiger sneakers.

After game two of the Finales, outside the stadium, a group of children clusters around us. One of them points to the pen in my notepad and makes a gathering-in gesture. At first I think he's asking to borrow it to get the signature of one of the ballplayers. Then Will explains that he wants it para escuela -- for school. A young woman from Major League Baseball who's looking to share a cab with us digs in her bag and produces a package of 30 pencils, one for each major-league team. The children converge, grabbing. They scuffle with one another. Pencils get snapped in two. Finally, a cop steps in. Vamos, he says, and they scatter.

Everywhere we go in Havana there are policemen. They line up every 10 or 15 feet in the stadium, arms folded, watching. They come in different varieties, some with ballcaps, some with berets. All of them wear gray shirts and navy pants, and all of them are skinny.

I attempt to sort out what their different badges and hats mean, but it's too nerve-wracking to look closely at their uniforms. The Havana police are masters of the glare, the scowl and the evil eye. Their facial expressions include grim aloofness, wary hostility, frank disdain, sullen suspicion and pure scary blankness.

According to one of our cabbies, this police presence is the result of a Giuliani-style crackdown on street crime. Starting in January, the government increased pay for policemen and added 50 or 100 percent more officers. The news that many of these hard-eyed men are green recruits is distinctly not comforting.

Seen in an arts-and-crafts market, in Havana's Old Town, among pornographic oil paintings, hand-carved dominos, and Che Guevara berets: a papier-mâché figurine of Brooks Robinson.

The question surrounding the exhibition, of whether the Cuban players can truly match up with the Americans, has different implications, depending on who's asking. Along for the trip are, for instance, scouts or general managers representing 24 of the 30 major-league teams. For them the question is, can these Cuban ballplayers be turned into American ballplayers?

This attitude is not restricted to baseball professionals. The automatic attitude of the Americano confronted with Cuba is one of acquisitiveness. Persistently, repeatedly, one speculates about what can be taken away from the island. By resisting us for so long, Cuba has become a sort of consumer-imperialist fantasy.

What could be more appealing than the thing we can't have? Before I left to visit the island four out of five people, upon hearing about this trip to Cuba, raised the subject of smuggling cigars back to the U.S. This is what the embargo means to our lives: The world's most prized cigars are off limits, the great, shining consumer contraband.

In fact, cigar shopping is perfectly legal for American citizens -- no problem, as long as they keep their purchase under 100 bucks. In the retail section on the ground floor of the Habana Libre, the very first shop outside the lobby doors is a tobacconist, with sheets of cool humidity clinging to its windows.

Another press-conference moment: Shortly after some of the Cuban players take the stage, someone wants to know what they think about the Cuban refugees in the major leagues, such as the Florida Marlins' Livan Hernandez, who have criticized this event.

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Linares answers in Spanish. His response gets interpreted in English: "They don't know about the criticism," the translator, a representative of the San Diego Padres, says.

There is grumbling among the Spanish-speaking press. Someone takes the floor microphone and demands a full translation. A new translator steps forward.

The new version is something rather different. While the players have no information about these complaints, Linares says, such criticisms are unjust. The Cuban major-leaguers, he says, are products of the revolution, trained and formed by the Cuban government. Their current triumphs depend on that fact, and therefore they have no right to criticize Cuba.

This reminds Will of another Linares quote: I would rather play for 11 million Cubans, he declared once, than for 11 million dollars.

It is game two of the Finales, the bottom of the ninth inning, with los Industriales trailing Santiago, 7-5. Last night Industriales rallied in the eighth inning to win; tonight, they've shaved three runs off a 7-2 Santiago margin. Even so, their fans are starting to head for the exits -- another point of overlap between the American game and the Cuban one.

But even as the fans start moving, Industriales' big first baseman, Antonio Scull, blasts a home run over the 345 sign in left. As he rounds the bases, the crowd reverses direction. The next two batters draw walks.


The following batter squares to bunt and pops it up. The third baseman comes charging in for it, sliding on his knees -- and the ball short-hops him, ticks off his glove and rolls into foul ground. The home-plate umpire makes precisely the right call: fair ball, all hands safe.

All hell immediately breaks loose. The Santiago pitcher charges off the mound, grabs the ump by the shirt and begins shaking him. The Santiago bench empties; players and umpires mill around on the first-base line, pushing and shoving. Both sides of the stadium are in full roar.

It takes a good 10 minutes to get the visitors back in the dugout. To my surprise, when it's all settled down, the Santiago pitcher is still on the mound. The bases are loaded, with the tying run at third.

The next batter ropes a line drive to left field. The Santiago left fielder comes racing in, toward the line, to make a spectacular stabbing catch for the first out of the inning. The play is so good that the Industriales fans applaud it.

And then the next batter hits a choppy grounder to short, a potential game-ending double play. The shortstop fields it cleanly and slings it to second. As the runner comes in with a hard takeout slide, the second baseman leaps in the pivot and fires toward first -- where there is no one to catch the ball. The tying and winning runs come across, 8-7 Industriales. The crowd at our back howls and shrieks and roars. The Industriales players pour out of the dugout, face the crowd and make the raise-the-roof sign.

Not until the next morning do we figure out exactly what happened. In the melee with the umpires, we learn, the Santiago first baseman had thrown his glove at an ump -- evidently a more serious infraction than shaking the ump bodily -- and had been ejected for it. So a backup left fielder took his place, and the sub, confused, broke to cover home plate on the final play. The second baseman, facing the takeout slide, threw blindly into the void.

When I first see the Santiago players under the stadium lights I think they're wearing red jerseys with gold caps. It takes several innings for me to figure out that the hats are actually a badly faded red.

Leaving the ballpark at the end of game two, we see a plume of smoke on the parking lot. We're convinced it's a bonfire until we realize it's coming from the tailpipe of the idling Santiago team bus.

While I stand there breathing the fumes, two men come up to me. They are Industriales players, still in their pinstriped game pants. The one on the left might be Antonio Scull. Up close, without his cap, I can't tell.

They are asking me if I would like to buy an autographed team ball. Five dollars. Stupefied, I dig four singles out of my wallet and beg a fifth from Jefferson. They hand me the ball -- signed by the whole team -- and hurry off. I suddenly wish I'd just handed them a 20.

Picture the Orioles doing that after a playoff win. Just try.

All weekend we've been wondering if Fidel Castro would show up for the exhibition game. The answer, when it comes, is abrupt and dramatic. Far below us on the field, a small group of people appears, two of them wearing green. There's no question which one is Castro, even at a distance from which his face and beard are invisible. He moves gracefully, purposefully, with no more haste than the sun or the moon. The crowd thrums and chants his name.

The easy explanation for this enthusiasm is that all 50,000 souls are, after all, hand-picked Party loyalists. But there is something else to it. The day before, in the fourth inning of game two of the Finales, a similar sensation passed through the regular baseball fans; they rose as one and faced center field in silent absorption to watch the Cuban flag being lowered for the evening.

This is the very thing, under the name of Communism and dictatorship, that the U.S. has spent 40 years trying to destroy. Yet it persists.

Down on the field, despite all this, the game goes on, into the 10th and 11th innings. Will Clark hits a double, and three batters later, Harold Baines deftly knocks him home. The Orioles take a 3-2 lead.

Still, the Cubans rally. With one out, Michel Abreu singles off Jesse Orosco. Then, ironically, it comes down to the least illustrious of the Orioles player: Jesse Garcia, a nonroster invitee for the Birds, dives for a grounder hit deep in the second-base hole by Cuba's Roberquis Videaux. Garcia smothers it and throws Videaux out at first. Ariel Pestano follows with another hard grounder, even deeper. And Garcia makes the same play again, only better, to seal the win. And now, 50,000 Cubans rise in admiration, applauding.

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