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  •   A Series That Means the World to Cuba

    Thomas Boswell
    By Thomas Boswell
    Washington Post Columnist
    Monday, March 29, 1999; Page D1

    HAVANA – The old Washington Senators pitcher Connie Marrero took the mound Sunday at Estadio Latinoamericano to face leadoff man Brady Anderson of the Baltimore Orioles. First, Marrero threw a curveball that broke over the heart of the plate for a strike. Then he tried two fastballs, just inches off the outside corner – the same way he always tried to get Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams to chase bad pitches.

    Finally, on the fourth pitch, as Cuban dictator Fidel Castro watched from a few yards away behind the screen, Anderson tried to bunt. But Marrero's curve was too sharp, and Anderson fouled it back. Then, since it was obvious Marrero had no intention of leaving the mound, Cuban authorities gently led the little snowy-haired gentleman away. After all, Marrero is 87.

    There's never been a ceremonial first pitch like Marrero's Sunday. But then there's never been a game like this historic 3-2 Orioles victory in 11 tense innings against a short-handed, makeshift Cuban team.

    Marrero began the afternoon with a message to his countrymen of complete defiance to the Americans. He wasn't kidding. He was pitching. The implication was simple: This game was dedicated to the athletic vindication of 40 years' worth of Cuban stars who have not been able to prove themselves against the other greats of baseball who compete as pros.

    More than three hours later, the day's result, quite simply, was one you'd wish for in a perfect world. The Orioles' $82 million payroll, and by extension all of big league baseball, escaped with their dignity intact. But just barely.

    In the bottom of the 10th inning, Cuba sent its No. 3 and No. 4 hitters – Yobal Duenas and the legendary Omar Linares (career average .371 with 377 homers) – to the plate against journeyman Mike Fetters with the potential winning run on second base. Cuba was one swing away from shocking the world.

    Thanks to a strikeout and a pop-up, Castro, seated between Commissioner Bud Selig and Orioles owner Peter Angelos, did not get the last laugh. Oh, he'd been gloating, breaking out a grin for the TV cameras when a two-out single in the eighth by Linares off reliever Mike Timlin tied the game at 2. The Orioles' 2-0 lead, built by Charles Johnson's home run, had been blown. The sellout invitation-only crowd, quiet for most of the game, finally had reason to holler.

    Castro, who once flunked a baseball tryout with the Giants, is still looking for that first big "W" against the Americans.

    As for the Cuban players, they went as far as one day's work possibly could to justify their own careers and countless others before them. Their composed come-from-behind performance was a credit to Wilfredo "Hit" Sanchez, Rodolfo Puente, Vincente Anglada, Omar Ajete, Victor "El Loco" Mesa and many others whose careers came and went in the relative obscurity of international amateur tournaments and the Olympics – which they always won.

    How poised was Cuba? The Orioles knocked out starter Jose Ibar in just two innings. In came speed-changing Jose Ariel Contreras, who allowed the Orioles just two hits in eight shutout innings while striking out 10. Mighty $55 million man Albert Belle was his personal pigeon with two whiffs and a double-play grounder. But then every Cuban pitcher owned Albert, who went 0 for 5 with six men left on base. He did have a nice batting practice for which the crowd gave him an appreciative ovation.

    Contreras "mixes speeds very well. ... He throws his breaking ball when he's behind in the count and has a good split-finger," said B.J. Surhoff. Could the Orioles use a pitcher like that? Or several?

    "I think it helped that the wind was blowing in," added Surhoff. Careful, B.J. The baseball gods don't like it when you make alibis for not hitting a guy who earns less in a month than the lowest Oriole gets for one day's meal money.

    The Orioles won the battle. But Cuba's players may have won the war. They proved, at least for 11 innings, that they could battle in a tight game against the Orioles' front-line players – and all of their best pitchers except Mike Mussina – and look completely at home on the same field.

    If these two teams played a 100-game season, which would be better? Probably the Orioles. They clearly have more powerful hitters in the heart of their order. But, otherwise, from pitching to fielding to base running, they seemed equal.

    "I'm not sure I see enough power [for the Cuban team to compete in the majors]," said Orioles Manager Ray Miller. "[But] I see enough pitching – here and in the states [from ex-patriates]. They did very well."

    When the Cubans come to Camden Yards on May 3 to play the Orioles again, they will arrive with a half-dozen more standouts who currently are playing in the island's national championship between Industriales and Santiago. After the Cubans add Antonio Pacheco, Herman Mesa and Orestes Kindalen, the Orioles better not wait until the 11th inning for Will Clark to double and Harold Baines to single him home.

    This game created only one problem. Which Cuban player will not want to defect? If this is the caliber of major league baseball, where do we sign up? How many of the Cuban players who took the field Sunday looked like they could step into the majors tomorrow? Almost all of them.

    One high-ranking baseball expert in Cuba, who requested anonymity, may have summed up the day best before the game ever began.

    "A lot of people here think we have the best baseball in the world. They are over-confident. We have good ballplayers. For Cuban baseball, it would be better for us to lose, so that we understand that we need to improve," he said. "If we win, we lose."

    Then, sweeping his hand around the full ballpark, he said, "The most important thing has already been accomplished."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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