Cuba stifles boredom, USA

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - The runners take their leads, and Omar Luis takes no notice. The Cuban pitcher bounces the ball off the pitching rubber before he throws it past the batter, and he fields it bare-handed when the catcher tosses it back.

Luis' body language communicates confidence and suggests contempt.

He is a ballplayer who has forgotten the sting of failure and, for the most part, the sensations of suspense.

When you play baseball for the national team of Cuba, your biggest opponent is boredom.

''I think they get bored a lot,'' American coach Skip Bertman said Sunday. ''They expect to win. When they do, they don't jump up and down.''

Team USA put the Cubans to an interesting test Sunday afternoon, twice bringing the winning run to the plate in the ninth inning before bowing, 10-8.

Cuban coach Jorge Fuentes called it, ''a ballgame that was worthy of these Olympics.''

Yet throughout the afternoon there was this nagging notion that the Cubans were toying with the local lads, saving their gold medal game for the gold medal game.

''When the score was 10-2,'' Fuentes conceded, ''there was an instance when we could relax.''

Cuba led 4-0 before the U.S. came to bat, and stretched its margin to 10-2 by the bottom of the sixth inning.

Luis Ulacia and Omar Linares hit back-to-back home runs in the first inning and then, searching for some way to keep the game interesting, tried back-to-back bunts in the second.

Given their power, the Cuban bunts did not seem particularly sound strategy. Yet it was a marvelous macho move. The Cuban players were telling the Americans they would win any way they wanted to.

Frankly, they probably can.

Depending on whose set of numbers are put into play, Sunday's game was either Cuba's 123rd, 131st or 140th consecutive victory in international competition.

The team's last acknowledged loss was to pitcher Jim Abbott in the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis, nearly nine years ago.

Since then, world communism has crumbled, and major-league salaries have soared.

Three Cuban pitchers have defected within the last year, reducing the team's competitive edge and raising the heat in Fidel Castro's rhetoric.

''We want to send a delegation of patriots . . . (to) the heart of the empire that despises us,'' the Cuban president said of Atlanta.

''They will do everything possible to deprive us of our best athletes and they will do everything possible to deprive us of medals.''

That may be so, but Cuba's baseball roster still runs pretty deep.

Linares has long been considered the world's most underpaid superstar, a skillful third baseman with a big bat.

Designated hitter Orestes Kindelan is hitting .500 in the Olympic tournament, with six home runs in six games.

Collectively, the Cubans are hitting .416 in Atlanta, and are averaging just under 15 runs per game.

''They've got a lot of good hitters,'' U.S. pitcher Billy Koch said. ''You pretty much can't make a mistake pitch. If you do, they'll drive it out of the park, as I found out (twice) in the first inning.''

Team USA might be Cuba's equal in terms of raw power, but Bertman's college kids are comparatively inexperienced and annoyingly impatient.

They hit five home runs Sunday against the Cubans, but all of them were struck with no runners aboard.

With the exception of third strikes, the Americans are reluctant to take pitches, to advance runners, to hit to the opposite field.

''We're into this home run derby thing,'' Bertman lamented. ''We need to go to right field.''

With one out in the ninth inning Sunday, Chad Allen and Troy Glaus came to the plate consecutively, each representing the winning run.

Both swung as if they were aiming strictly for the seats. Both players struck out.

''I expect there to be a great party in Havana tonight,'' Fuentes said.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 29, 1996.