Thomas Gil Sr. sat in the first row of seats in Miami Beach's Flamingo Park, his face a mask of tension, staring down at the playing field in front of him.

Behind the left field fence, the sun was slowly disappearing. But it was 85 degrees and the humidity made it a sweltering evening.

In the on-deck circle stood Thomas Gil Jr., age 19. Born in Havana, Tommy Gil emigrated to Miami with his parents when he was 5. Now, 14 years later, he was a picture of calm as he stood in the circle casually swinging two bats.

As Gil Jr. tossed one bat away and walked to the plate, his father's eyes remained riveted in his direction and he seemed unaware of anyone around him.

It was the top of the fifth inning and Gil Jr.'s American Legion team, Hialeah Post 32 -- the 1978 American Legion national champion -- clung to a 3-2 lead against the Miami Beach team.

Gil, one of 16 transplanted Cubans on the 18-man Hialeah team, had been hitless in two at-bats that day. He stepped to the plate with two men out and a teammate on third base.

To Tommy Gil, driving in an insurance run was important. To his father, it may have been more important.

"Baseball is everything to my father," the teen-ager had said earlier in the evening. "If I want to go fishing the day before a game, he tells me not to because it might affect my play in the game. I can't really remember not playing, baseball. For as long as I can remember being alive, I remember playing baseball."

On the 2-2 pitch, Gil Jr. reached out and slapped a hard ground ball into left field for a single. Gil Sr. leaned back in his chair and smiled faintly. Around him several friends were clapping and yelling in Spanish. The father did not clap or cheer.

"Now, he is one for three," he said simply, the implication being that it is the least he would expect from his son.

"Baseball has always been my one true love," he continued in Spanish. "I didn't make it as a pro. Perhaps my son can. I don't play the game anymore so I try to stay involved with it, through my son."

Gil Sr. is a factory mechanic.He does not want his son to follow in his footsteps. He wants him to get a college degree -- Gil Jr., will attend the University of Miami on a baseball scholarship in the fall -- and he wants him to have a shot at the major leagues.

But five years ago there was a threat to the latter dream: football.

"When I was a freshman in high school I thought I'd like to try football," said Gil Jr. who speaks English without any trace of an accent. "When I told my parents I wanted to try out, they just completely rejected the idea, especially my father. They were both afraid I might get hurt and mess up my baseball."

Gil Jr. acceded to his parents' wishes and stuck to baseball. Like many of his contemporaries, he likes football and is interested in many sports outside of baseball. And, like many of his friends, he has accepted his parents' insistence that he stick to baseball.

His father has adapted to his new home in some areas though. Gil Jr.'s 15-year-old-sister plays softball on her high school team.

"In Cuba, girls don't play softball," the father said. "Here, they say it is okay, so I say it is okay." He shrugged. The time for talking was over. Gil Jr. was in the on-deck circle again.

There are about 500,000 Cubans living in Dade County today, roughly 30 percent of the Miami area's population. Sports play a crucial role in the Cuban-American society. But that role is different from the role it plays in the lives of most native Americans.

The Cuban obsession is more with baseball than with sports. Basketball, boxing, rowing, soccer, track and volleyball are all popular among Cubans. But the combined interest in all other sports does not equal the interest and passion for baseball.

In Cuba, a boy learns certain things early in life; how to brush his teeth, how to tie his shoes, how to put a baseball glove on his hand. The current refugees are a product of that environment. Baseball is all they can visualize when sports are mentioned. Ask them about football and a puzzled look will cross their faces.

Cuban-Americans like Tommy Gil also learn baseball almost before they can walk. But for those who have grown up in Florida baseball is one sport, not necessarily the sport as it was -- and is -- to their fathers.

To the current refugees, the ultimate athletic goal is the major leagues. To a growing number of Cuban-American youngsters in Miami, the National Football League can be viewed in the same light.

This change in outlook is a slow one, but it is beginning to be felt in families that arrived here in the 1960s. Ten years from now the current refugees will probably find themselves dealing with the same kinds of conflicts. As its younger generation is gradually assimilated into American society (the way the children of the 60s has been) the parents will find themselves being asked questions like: "Why can't I play football?" and "What's wrong with girls playing softball?"

Many of those in Tommy Gil's generation are already asking those questions. Their parents, who came here as adults, see no reason to change their attitude towards sports. Just as they insist on maintaining tradition by having their children speak Spanish at home, many insist on maintaining tradition by teaching their sons baseball almost before they can teach them to walk. Baseball is as Cuban as apple pie is American.

Lou Brande, the baseball coach at Miami's Coral Park High School, is much like Tommy Gil. He is 25 and arrived in this country in 1961 at age 6. m

"To my father and most of my father's friends, baseball is the only sport," said Brande. "But I like football. When my kids grow up, if they want to play football, they will play football. I don't think it will be until that generation -- my children -- grows up that you'll start to see a lot of Cuban football players."

Brande said he sees roughly the same kind of pattern evolving among the newly arrived refugees. "The adults won't change their attitudes but the kids will," he said. "Only maybe the kids will be a little more traditional than those of us who came over in the 60s.

"When we came over if you didn't learn to speak English right away you didn't have anyone to talk to in school. That won't be so with this group. If they settle in Miami they could probably grow up speaking only Spanish if they wanted to. They may not be assimilated as quickly or as thoroughly as we were."

Phil Philbin, a scout for the Philadelphia Phillies, managed an American Legion team for 12 years that was made up of practically all Cuban-Americans.

"Cuban kids play baseball every day, all day, all year round in Cuba," Philbin said. "Their parents here would probably like to see them continue that.

"Of course it doesn't happen. There are other forms of entertainment, like the movies or the beach. A lot of them work too. And when they work they often earn enough money to buy a car. Those are distractions. That may take away some of the intensity the father may have felt for the game in Cuba."

Lou Reilly, Thommy Gil's American Legion coach, a Miami Beach police detective, sees him as a pro prospect -- he was drafted on the ninth round last year by the Cleveland Indians. But he also see Gil's father as a second coach.

"If you've got 10 native Americans on a team maybe three of them will have fathers who played baseball seriously," Reilly said. "But if you have 10 Cuban-Americans on a team probably nine of them have fathers who have played. They're very involved. They never miss a game.

"Sometimes you'll work with a kid on something for hours, trying to get him to do it a certain way. You'll get it down, then send him home. The next day they come back doing it differently. You ask them why. They tell you they've been working with their father."

Football hardly exists in Cuba. There has been a club team at the University of Havana but less than 1 percent of the population has ever seen a game. Those that have don't seem to like it.

"Most older Cubans want no part of the sport at all," said Juan Pascual, nephew of former Washington Senator pitcher Camilo Pascual. "They look at it as something for animals. They don't want their children playing it, especially if it might affect their baseball."

As a teen-ager Juan Pascual convinced his father, Carlos Pascual, Camilio's brother who also pitched for the Senators, to let him try football briefly. Several weeks later Juan came home, with a separated right shoulder.

"All my father said," Juan Pascual remembered, "was, 'I told you so'."

Last fall Bert Pascual, Camilio's 16-year-old son, convinced his parents to let him give football a try. As a Coral Park High School junior he was the school's starting quarterback. But he will not be playing football as a senior.

"My dad just feels that I have a better chance to succeed as a baseball player than in football," said Bert, a .382 hitter as a third baseman this spring. "Neither of my parents was ever real high on me playing football anyway. They just see it as a way for me to get killed."

Bert Pascual is a solidly built, husky youngster with a superb arm. He might have had a future in football. Perhaps he could have gotten a college football scholarship. Brandle says he has a good shot at a baseball scholarship.

"I like both sports," Pascual said, gazing toward the far side of Coral Park's recreational fields where the football team was practicing. But my future probably is in baseball. Why make a big deal about it?"

Apparently, many Cuban-American youngsters have a similar attitude. Many who might be willing to give football a try are discouraged by their parents and never try the sport. As a result, the increase in Miami's Cuban population has coincided with a drop in the quality of high school football, a drop in attendance at high school football games and, most significantly, a huge drop in the number of students who try out for football each year.

"The sport just isn't important enough to most of the kids to fight their parents on it," said Coral Park's Dan Wagner, principal, who has worked in the Miami school system since the first wave of refugees began arriving 21 years ago. "Most of them are going out because they're curious as much as anything. You aren't likely to create a battle with your parents over somethng that is a curiosity."

Coral Park, 63 percent Cuban-American, has 70 players trying out for football among a student population of about 2,800 this spring. About 100 tried out for baseball.

Miami High School, for decades a power in state football circles, has 45 players, out of a student population of 2,700 (90 percent of whom are Cubans). pout for football this spring. Incontrast 125 players showed up for baseball tryouts.

"We're in a position where we're going to go out and recruit in the junior high schools," said Bill Berry Miami High's football coach. "Not recruiting in the sense of getting them to come to Miami, but recruiting in the sense of convincing them to come out for football when they enroll at the school."

Mike Alvarez sat on the creaky wooden bleacher, sweat pouring from his body. He had just been through a grueling two-hour spring practice at Coral Park.

Mike Alvarez was born in Miami, but at home he speaks Spanish with his parents, Cuban emigres. With his brothers and sisters, he speakes English.

Alvarez is 6 feet and weighs 247 pounds. He is an offensive tackle at Coral Park. He plans to go to college on football scholarship.

"I know there aren't a lot of Cubans in pro football," he said (Ralph Ortega of the Miami Dolphins is the only one). But I'm planning on making it as a pro player. I'm going all the way in this sport."

Alvarez's coach, Ron Balaz, says that Alvarez is a prospect. But, Balaz points out, Alvarez is the exception, the Cuban-American with minimal interest in baseball, whose parents do not object to football.

"Most of the kids who come out for my team (50 to 70 out this spring have Cuban backgrounds) don't know the basics of football," Balaz said. "We don't have a communications gap, we have a knowledge gap. They don't know where to be positioned as linebackers. They don't know the fundamentals because they were never exposed to the game as kids.

"American kids are taught the game by their parents, their fathers. By the time they're 9 or 10 they know what a linebacker is and where he plays. The Cubans kids don't get that. A lot of them end up teaching their fathers the game."

Alvarez is different from most of his friends. He became a Miami Dolphin fan at a young age. He has learned the game and is devoted to it. It bothers him that so few of his friends at the high school share his passion.

"We have guys who can play the sport here," he said. "But this is like a lot of middle-class schools. Not so many of them want to make the effort. They want to work so they can have a car. Or, they already have a car.

"My kids will probably play football because I'll teach them the game. You teach what you're familiar with. I'm familiar with football. I like it."

Alvarez is in the minority among Cuban-American youngsters. Carlos Pascual, in addition to scouting for the Baltimore Orioles, runs a baseball school with his son Juan in Miami 50 Saturdays a year. According to his son, football is not played by any of the 250 students in the school, who range in age from 5 to 15.

"All you do in football is get killed," said 11-year-old Yveldo Rodriguez, as several friends nodded in agreement. "Anyone can get killed; that doesn't take any skill. Baseball takes skill."

"There's definitely a prejudice against the game among the Cuban parents," said Wagner. "They let their kids know early just how they feel about the sport. Not that many of them want to buck their parents. Kids like Mike Alvarez are unusual. But each year there are a few more like him."

And each year there are a few more girls staying after school to participate in sports. The number is up to 40 percent at Coral Park, Miami and Hialeah high schools, almost twice the number it was five years ago.

"Latin girls have never been involved in athletics very much at all," said Roland Lopez, Carol Park's gymnastics coach. "Latins, Cubans, tend to protect girls from their environment. It's taken a long time to get any girls out for sports.

"Volleyball is the exception in Cuba, girls do play. But beyond that they're generally kept at home learning to cook and clean."

Lopez's family moved to Miami from Havana in 1951 when he was 3 years old.

As a teen-ager he was on the gymnastics team in high school. When his younger sister wanted to join the gymnastics team several years later, Lopez had to convince his parents that there was nothing wrong with allowing her to take part.

"That tradition of keeping the girls at home is really only starting to change now," said Miami High Principal Curt Knowles. "Each year we're getting more and more girls out for sports. Don't forget that girls taking part in a lot of sports activity isn't exactly an age-old phenomenon in the United States either."

For many of the older Cubans even having their wives come out to watch their sons play baseball is considered somewhat gauche.

"Baseball is a man's sport," said Miguel Alvarez as he watched his 9-year-old son Miguel Jr. take batting practice at Pascual's baseball school. "I teach my son the game and I bring him to school here. There is no need for my wife to be involved."

If some women are willing to go along with the tradition of staying at home, Mary Fernandez, standing next to her husband, Jesus, watching their 8-year-old son Juan at batting practice isn't.

"Liberated?" she laughed. "You call this liberated? I'm as interested in my son's baseball as my husband is. Why shouldn't I watch? My husband thinks I should cook and Juan should play baseball. Maybe, when Juan is older he will want to play football. Maybe I'll want to play softball. This is Miami, not Havana."

In Havana, Adainis Marcote would not be allowed to play baseball with boys. But in Miami two years ago Marcote became the first girl to ever play in the Bronco Division (11-12) of Pony League baseball on a national level when she qualified for a national all-star team.

Marcote is a Cuban-American who grew up in Miami. She is still the starting shortstop for her team in the 13-14 age group. Her story makes Mary Fernandez smile. "Why not?" she said.

Her story made Thomas Gil Sr. flinch. "Baseball," he said, "is not for girls."

Not in Gil Sr.'s generation. But in the generation of his son and in the generation of cousins Juan and Bert Pascual, baseball for girls is becoming more acceptable each day. So is football.

"If my daughter wants to play a sport, she'll play a sport," said Juan Pascual, glancing around at the activity at the baseball school. "If my kids want to play four sports, they'll play four sports. If they want to concentrate on one, that's fine too. But it will be their choice, no one else's.

"I guess," he added with a smile, "you could say that's the American way."