Jerry Kindall, a big-leaguer for a dacade, gazed at the Cuban national baseball team today.
"They're better than several clubs in the major leagues," said Kindall, the coach of the U.S. team that must face Cuba here on Wednesday in the Pan American Games.
"people who say that Cuba is a Triple -A team are crazy. At least five or their regulars could step into a big-league lineup tomorrow," said Kindall, coach at Arizona the last 10 years.
"this is just the next generation after Tony Perez, Luis Tiant and Mike Cuellar -- same quality. Before that, Cubans were half the Washingtn Senator team -- the better half.
"right now, Cuba is the best of its breed."
"that rare Cuban breed put on one of its best performances today, stretching its wining streak in the Pan Am Games to 22. The string goes back to 1967.
Back home in Pinar del Rio, Matanzas or Havana, there would have been bedlam today when Cuba went into the bottom of the ninth, trailing a solid Venezuela squad, 7-4.
Instead, here in almost-empty Caguas Stadium, the only noise came from the excited Venezuelan team -- meeting on the mound to link all 18 hands and make their solemn victory pact.
It did pathetically little good. The big Red Machine struck as inexorably as the Cincinnati champions of a few years ago.
The first Cuban hitter, a 6-foot-5 catcher with a rifle arm, let himself be nicked by an 0-2 brushback pitch. Veteran Rodolfo Puente, a totally polished shortstop, then slapped a single behind the runner.
At this point, a purely Cuban dimension decided the game.
The scheduled hitter was the greatest batter in Cuban history -- Wilfredo Sanchez -- with a 334 average over 11 seasons. His mark this season: .364.
Cuba sent up a pinch-hitter.
"Cuba has no stars. No one is bigger than the team," said Manager Sergio Borges, 32, who was collected eight amateur world titles, three Central American crowns and two Pan Am titles since 1969.
"baseball is an entity. Each player is used at his appropriate time. The situation called for a right-handed hitter against a left-handed pitcher. Sanchez would never complain."
Far from complaining, Sanchez fetched the bat for veteran Armando Capiro, and led him halfway to the plate with pats and exhortations. What would Rod Carew, a Sanchez lookalike, do if he were lifted in the ninth inning of a World Series?
With the whole Cuban team standing and cheering in the dugout, Capiro hit the first pitch over the 375-foot sign in left center for a three-run homer to tie the game at 7.
By the time he touched third, the traditional Cuban greeting committee had been formed - -the entire team stretching the length of the third-base line from the bag to the plate to smack Capiro's hand.
The formality of the winning run was driven in by Puente in the 10th with his fifth hit of the game.
"Cuba is used to this," shrugged Borges. We came from behind in the ninth yesterday against Canada. We did it today, and we will do it again tomorrow if it is necessary.
"in basketball, if you are behind, the clock can defeat you. In baseball, your fate is more in your own hands.
"today you saw the backbone of the team which has been together since 1971 -- Puente, Sanchez, Capiro and Marquetti. This is a complete team whose secret is good morale. Did they know about the winning stread . . . oh, si, si, si. This team believers that it should never lose one game, nd it does whatever is necessary to prevent it."
Within five years, Cuban baseball should endure a slump. This club of prime veterans will age suddenly and together. But for the moment, America's "Great Leaguers" may be wise to duck them.
"as a technician and student of the sport, I should like to play the Great Leaguers," said Borges, smiling wryly. "but I hear of no progress toward a game. We impose no conditions. Perhaps you should ask Mr. Bowie Kuhn why."
Cuba's baseball success has helped pacify the Cuban delegation here. This has, in some respects, been a sobering Pan Am Games for the Castro sports establishment with its network of islandwide academies. Cuba's 44 gold medals compare favorable with the U.S.'s 71, and is more than the other 32 countries in the Games combined.
However, low-profile Canada trials Cuba in total medals by only two, 106-104, and several Cuban glamor jocks have lost -- most notably runner Alberto Juantorena, the por Cuban basketball team and every Cuban boxer who has faced the U.S.
Predictably, the Cubans continue making gains in obscure sports that few other countries care deeply about. Anthing for medals.
"our rowers have done well, no?" asked Borges. "They are not people who live by ocean, you know. They are blacks from the mountains in the interior we have trained."
While the Cuban team is national passion -- a collection of heroes who enter every world-wide tournament from Holland to Italy to Japan to Latin American -- the U.S. team, as might be expected, was almost an American afterthought.
Many U.S. athlete is so green he doesn't even know what he is up against. Pitcher Brian Synder, from Chantilly, Va., started today's game against the tame Baramiams, but said "Gee, I'd rather start tomorrow against the Cubans. They don't look so tough to me."
They look tough to Kindall. "We're never going to be able to compete evenly with them until we have a moratorium on the pros signing the best college players just before the Pan Am Games," he said.
"our coaching staff picked the 50 best college players in the country. Twenty of them, mostly the very best, have been signed in the last four weeks since the major league draft, which was a month ago today.
"frankly I'm upset about the way several big-league clubs were so anxious to coax or pressure young players not to come here and represent the U.S.
"i know of one team that actually offered bonuses to players if they would sign and skip the Pan Am Games.
"it was so bad that six hours before our plane left Miami, we still didn't know who the big-league clubs were so anxious is a mystery to me. Are a month of games in the Appalachian Rookie League that vital?
"it's a shame the pros could not ease up. The relatonship between colleges and pro ball has, in general, never been so gook. But this in one big area for improvment. Getting to play for your country is a once-in-a-life-time trill -- and it's something that baseball offers precious little of."
Kindell's creditable team, with a 4-2 record that may yet win bronze if not gold, still hopes to upset the Cubans.Star U.S. pitcher Timothy Leary, the No. 1 pick in the draft, will take the hill Wednesday.
After all, a psychedelic fast ball can neutralize many five-year plan.
Nevertheless, Cuba's reputation now precedes it like an advance battalion laying down scorched earth to char the foe's will.
"i hear Cuba has a Pan-Am winning streak," said Leary curiously.
Yes, he was told it goes back to 1967.
"they haven't lost one game," said Leary, with disbelief.
That streak may seem almost hallucinatory. Unless you saw a bench-warmer pinch-hit for the best batter in Cuban history today. Then it's easy to understand. CAPTION: Picture, Kevin McHale's reach isn't long enough to stop Cuba's Thomas Herrera from scoring in Pan Am Games. United States posted 101-83 victory in the final-round basketball game. UPI