The first week of April has been a time of subdued mourning for Cuban baseball fans - in other words, the entire population.
This was to be the occasion when the North American "Great Leaguers" would send the most magnificent team ever assembled to their island.
Finally, the greatest batter in Cuban history, Wilfredo Sanchez - the leadoff man called "Hit-Fredo" - would get to bat against Nolan Ryan.
Cuba's astonising boy manager, Servio Borges, who has already led the national team to six world amateur titles in a 10-year career that began at age 19, could match strategy with Billy Martin.
That Mr. Everything of the Pearl of the Antilles, nimble shortstop Rodolfo Puente, could draw his magic line in the box with his bat, from the right-front corner of the plate to his right toe. Would the Americans know what it means? Could Joe Morgan really be better than Puente?
Le Gigantic del Escambray - the Giant of the Mountains - the slugger known only by his last name, Munoz, could join forces in the power slots with two other muscle men known throughout Cuba by one-word names: Cheito and Marquetti.
Could the almost mythical catcher that this nation has never seen, Johnny Bench, stop the thefts of Vicente Anglada?
And could the battalion of sluggers from the north intimidate the pitching staff of junkballing southpaws in the Mike Cuellar mold, and sidearming righties with cordscrew deliveries like Luis Tiant?
Cuba, after an almost 20-year wait since seeing its last Great Leaguers, was as prickly with anticipation as the ceiba tree. All 65,000 seats in Havana's Stadio Latinoamericano would be distributed free, on a merit basis, to the citizens judged by their local communities to be the best workers, revolutionaries and comrades.
The people - who knew perhaps a million stong - would gather in the Plaza de la Revolucion, between the marble statue of the poet-martyr Jose Marti and the grotesquely huge mural of Che Guevara, to inspire their players.
Representatives of the major leagues and Cuba had discussed and negotiated for nearly three years. Every detail had been worked out. Or, so the Cubans people were told.
"The major leagues have never combined the all-stars of both our leagues," Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn told Cuban representative Fabio Ruiz. "For the first time, the best player for every position will be on the field at the same time. That is my idea."
"We will agree to that," laughed Ruiz, "but do you want to tear our heads off?"
"That's what I'm aiming at," answered Kuhn, jokingly.
Then, in February, came a telegram that dismayed Cuba. No game could be held, Kuhn said, because U.S. fans had no assurance of being able to see Cuban players in the future.
To the major leagues and to Americans, this decision has meant little. To Cubans, it has been an immense disappointment and a mojor embarrassment within their sports hierarchy.
"We are mystified," says Ruiz. "Whar does Kuhn mean? Even now, many weeks later, I cannot find out. Does he mean, as his telegram says, that Americans cannot see Cuban players?
"That is not true. We have agreed in principle to a return game in the United States. We would even discuss playing the first game in the States.
"Or, does he mean that American teams cannot hope to sign Cuban players to professional contracts? If that is what he means, he has deceived us for three years. Since the first meeting, we have said plainly that such signings will never be possible.
"Every sort of American team, from basketball to Ping-Pong to boxing has come to Cuba and we have been to the U.S. This is no breakthrough. Baseball is the last sport, not the first.
"But to our people baseball is by far the most important.
"The major leagues have given us near-promises three times, and each time they have backed out.In the next talks with Mr. Kuhn, we would need a great assurance that there would be no stepping back.
"Surely the Great Leagues cannot be afraid of losing."
When the year comes that the United States and Cuba finally meet, in the sport that is the titular National Pastime of one, and the de facto national fanaticism of the other, both sides probably will have a shock.
Cuban fans and players have little conception of the power of stateside hitters and the speed of the best fastballers.
The island game does everything feasible to promote home runs, including aluminium bats, lively balls and uniform parks, that are only 110.06 meters (345 feet) to the low power-alley fences.
Nevertheless, 20 home runs in a 93-game season by Munoz Cheito or Marquetti is considered exceptional. The first has the physique of a yound Willie McCovery, but without the same upper-body surplus of muscles. The latter two tend toward the Sal Banda school of dumpy sluggers.
None has the blurred-bat speed of a dozen American big leaguers.
Cuba's other two patent thin spots are (1) lack of imposing starting pitching and (2) an amazing penchant for missing the cutoff man. The top hurlers for Cuba's four best teams in the topflight Selectiva Serie - Pinar del Rio, Havana, Matanzas and Las Villas - are almost all dependent on one tricky breaking pitch, or peculiar delivery, usually sidearm.
Despite, these flaws, it is possible that a Cuban all-star team would be considerably better than the customary appraisal that Cuban teams are at the Triple-A level, at best.
Even the best of the six Cuban teams woule probably be no better than Seattle or Toronto. But, put all six squads together, and the Cuban national team would have excellent speed, defense, hitting-for-average, bunting and relief pitching.
"We believe that the real quality of baseball is in the Great Leagues," Cuban Manager Borges says modestly. "Nevertheless, I would not agree to give a player analysis of my team. That is one advantage I should like to keep, should we ever meet. We know you far better than you know us."
"Ironically, Cuba's best player, right fielder Sanchez, is his country's most candid evaluator.
"Most of our pitchers throw the fast ball and curves. Nothing else," says Sanchez, "We know that pitchers in the Great Leagues throw sliders, screballs, sinkers, knuckleballs and other pitches. We have those here, too, but not as much.
"I would like to face the North Americans, to bat against pitchers who all have pitches."
Sanchez, one of four standout brothers, epitomizes the best of Cuban players, while also typifying the norm.
The grinning, smooth-skinned Sanchez seems too young too unpretentious, too funny, too free of cares to be the top star in a national addicted to baseball for a century.
Yet, it is characteristic that Cuban baseball stars carry their fame lightly.
"It is said that the Cuban team has exactly as many managers as there are people in the population," smiles Borges, the real manager of that team. "I try to apply the same rule that I give my players: You can only be a hero in relation to yourself, not to the demands of others."
"After every game," Sanchez says with a grin, "I have 9 1/2 million people waiting outside the stadium who want to explain to me, for the good of Cuba, what I did wrong."
Sanchez, is probably the best unknown player in the world; unknown, that is, outside Cuba.
Here every child pats diapers knows that Sanchez:
Has the highest career batting average in Cuban history, .332 for 10 seasons.
Will win his sixth batting title this year and may become Cuba's first .400 hitter. Last week Sanchez' average reached .418.
Should become Cuba's first 2,000-hit man.
Has a .388 lifetime average in international play as leadoff hitter and top base thief.
Once came within inches of starting the only quadruple play in history (four outs) with a great outfield catch.
"Yes, we almost got four legal outs on one play," Sanchez says, laughing. "But as it turned out, I became the only man to start a triple play which drove home the oppos-team's winning run."
That near-quadruple play, certainly the most spectacular unknown play ever, captures the ecentral threads of current Cuban baseball - recklessness, speed, superb defense and fascination with rules and strategy.
The four-out play, explained, become stunningly simple to baseball aficionados and stays forever unintelligible to the rest of humanity. Any Cuban school child, for instance, could explain it.
With the bases loaded, none out, tie game, Sanchez made a remarkable catch in right-center field. The runners on first and second bases ran on the line drive up the gap, and were trapped far off their bases as Sanches pegged to second and the relay was fired to first.
Triple play: one fly ball caught, two runners doubled up.
Meanwhile, however, the alert runner on third base had tagged up and crossed home plate before the final (third) out at first base. Since the final out was not a force play, the run counted.
Here, the play takes on what might be called The Cuban Dimension. The manager of Sanchez' team appealed the runner's tagging up at third, claiming that he had left the base a split second before the catch.
Few managers would know that such an appeal play could result in a legitimate fourth out, thus nullifying a vital run. Except, that is, in Cuba where even the hounds lying in the road would know.
In the confusion, one umpire signaled that fourth out, while the others upheld the run. Finally, the run was upheld, and it cost Sanchez' team (Matanzas) the game, 3-2.
"Such a play would severely test my theory of managing," says Borges, who skippered his first world amateur champion team in 1969 and still looks barely over 21.
"Even if, inside, you are like a volcano, you should be like a serene lake on the outside. You must be inexpressive, because what you reflect penetrates the others.
"What I do," he says, with a mischievous smile, "is pull out my hairs one by one from under my cap when the players are not looking. I will be also the youngest bald manager."
Borges' position in Cuban sports life is an apparent incongruit on the surface. He wears jeans, an old Cuban zipper jacket, tennis shoes and a '50s hair style that makes him look like a slightly tougher Sal Mineo stepping straight out of a West Side Story."
Yet Borges is not merely the manager of the national baseball team, but the Director of Sport for the entire country, a mammoth job of coordinating programs in a score of sports in 14 provinces.Over half-a-million Cuban play some form of organized baseball and almost all are in some way under Borges' young eye.
The boyish figure in blue jeans sits in a marble and mahogany office worthy of any oil company executive. The signs on the door speak of "people's committees" and the like, but it is obvious that Borges is the man who can put his sneaker up on this desk anytime he wants.
When Borges speaks he seems even more incongruous. "I was a bad player myself, so it will be no surprise if I also become a bad manager," he says. "No hit, no field and now no manage."
But in a moment he turns serious. "I do not think that sport is like art," he says, "I think that sport is art. Every sportsman becomes a creator in every act."
"We deal with techniques that might need scientific and mathematical study. That is one side. Cuba makes strides every day melding science and sport. We use computers to study motion and angles of stress and maximum techniques.
"But we must also find a way for emotion and inspiration to conjugate themselves with art. We cannot be robots. Science, art and inspiration," he says, lifting a marble cube on his desk and revolving it in his fingers to look at the various sides. "Those are the components."
Borges begins to laugh at his own philosophizing. We must not make sport too difficult," he says. "Take the signs of a baseball team - steal, bunt, hit-and-run. It is much better for both teams to know the signs, than for neither team to know them."
Borges and Sanchez are both first-generation products of Fidel Castro's fiercely competitive athletic meritocracy based on the double dictim: "Sports is the right of te people" and "I cannot conceive of a young revolutionary who is not also an athlete."
On that day when America's Great Leaguers finally find their way to the elephantine Stadio Latinoamericano here, they will be met by a tangled nexus of baseball fever and radical political fervor.
The Benches and Jackson need look no further than the ballpark itself to see the juxtaposition. The grandstand has 35,000 pre-revolution seats which look like a block of Cleveland's sprawling old Municipal Stadium. The outfield is ringed by 30,000 modernistic bleacher seats built by "voluntary" workers' cadres in the 21st Century style of Anaheim.
The major leaguers also need not worry too long about bringing back a Sanchez with his name on a contract.
"Why would I want to leave my country?" says Sanchez, disbelievingly. "The last time Americans came to my province it was the CIA landing at the Bay of Pigs. When we captured them, they all said they were cooks.
"That was long ago. Now even we think that is funny. When the Great Leaguers come, we will welcome them and be their cooks. We hold no hard feelings."
Wilfredo Sanchez, man of four outs and a .418 batting average, smiles to himself. This blazing light shining under a bushel in the Caribbean, has, like many others, planned his welcome for the Great Leaguers for many years, slowly cooking, cooking.