Carlos Pascual his cap tugged low over his eyes, stood on the makeshift mound feeding baseballs into a pitching machine.
Sixty feet, six inches away, the batter, himself less than 60 inches tall, waved the bat, squared to bunt and fouled off the pitch.
In Spanish, Pascual shouted instructions to the youngster. He fed another ball into the machine.This time, the 9-year-old bunted the ball perfectly.
"That's it, that's the way," Pascual said, this time in English. "That's the way you bunt a baseball."
This is the Academia Pascual, one of 15 Cuban-run baseball schools in the Miami area. The students are virtually all Cuban-Americans, ranging in age from 5 to 15.
"We try to teach them how to play the game the proper way," said Pascual, who runs the school. "We Cubans love baseball. This is where the children first learn to love the game. It's important that they learn correctly. It will be a part of their lives as long as they live."
In the area of southwest Miami known as Little Havana, where most of Dade County's 500,000 Cuban-americans live, almost all the men play baseball. Those who can't play, watch. For most Cubans, whether they live in Miami or Havana, baseball is not a sport. It is an obsession.
Yet, looking at current major league rosters, you wonder: where are all the Cubans? Now only four, all of whom grew up in Cuba, are in the majors. Not one Cuban-American -- a player of Cuban ancestry raised in the U.S. -- is in the big leagues.
One answer comes to mind almost immedately. Before Fidel Castro's ban on Cubans signing with the major league teams, there were 8 million Cubans to choose from. Now there are only the roughly 800,000 who have immigrated to this country.
But here, where most Cuban-Americans live, where so many of them are outstanding players as teen-agers, most people will tell you that it is more thn a simple case of numbers.
Lou Brande came here from Havana in 1961 as a 6-year-old. Now, as the baseball coach of a Coral Park High School team composed entirely of Cuban-Americans, Brande deals of ten with youngsters who have professional ambitions.
"I think there are a couple of major reasons why there aren't more Cubans in the big leagues," Brande said.
"First, Cuban kids tend to peak earlier than American kids. I think part of the reason for that is because they play the game all year round and they play it to the exclusion of all other sports. Because of that, their skills are better developed at 15 or 16. But then they don't improve that much.
"Second, I think American kids, as a group, are better all-around athletes. They can do more things because they play other sports as kids. They're also more into weight training. The Cuban kids are constantly being told by their parents that weight training will hurt their baseball. That's false."
Brande was a pitcher at Miami High School, then went on to Dade Junior College and the University of Miami on baseball scholarships. He worked two years for a Miami boys club, spent a year as an assistant baseball coach at Mississippi State, then returned to Miami as baseball coach and as assistant football coach at Coral Park.
Brande is fluent in Spanish and English but says he "thinks" in English. On the baseball field, Brande speaks "Spanlinguish," which often results in the speaker starting a sentence in Spanish and finishing in English or vice versa.
In a sense, Brande is the prototype of an entire group of Cuban-Americans who arrived here as children during the last 20 years. They are middle-class, educated, Americanized in outlook but still, mostly through their parents, attached to some Cuban traditions -- a close-knit family with great respect for the elderly and a devotion to baseball.
Brande believes he has a responsibility to pull his young players away from some of the old traditions that may be preventing them from succeeding as baseball professionals.
Last fall, Brande instituted a weight training program for his team. He thinks it helped his players hit with more power. Power -- or the lack of it -- is one thing big league scouts complain about when discussing Cuban ballplayers.
"The Cuban player has become stereotyped as small and quick and incapable of hitting for power," said Phil Philbin, a Philadelphia Phillies scout who coached a virtually all-Cuban American Legion team for 12 years. "Slowly that stereotype is changing. But it's going to take a while.
"More Cuban-Americans are being drafted each time around. The last draft the Red Sox took Uan Bustabad (from Miami) on the first round. But a lot of scouts are still wary of them because they feel that what you're seeing now may be what you're going to get eventually. They're still suspect of the kid's overall potential."
Ralph Davis, baseball coach at Miami High School for the last 28 years (Brande pitched for him), thinks it may go beyond that and hints that lingering prejudice among major league scouts, the majority of whom are white, also may have been a factor in the past.
"Cuban players had to be a step better to make it until recently," Davis said. "I had a boy who played for me named Manny Crespo who signed with the Red Sox, hit .300 for them in the minor leagues and never got invited to spring training."
Davis, 66, grew up in Alabama and is as blunt as he is experienced. His gravel voice fills with pride when he talks about the players Miami High has produced under his tutelage. He has not coached a non-cuban player in 10 years. None of the native Americans who have tried out for the team have been gone enough to survive the cut to 18 players, Davis said.
"If I think one of my players is messing up, I tell them they're messing up," Davis said. "In the '60s I told the kids they were dumb white boys. Now it means telling them they're stupid Cubans."
Brande remembers playing for Davis. He remembers being yelled at by him and remembers learning about baseball from him. "He knows the game," Brande said. "He asks his players to work very hard. I ask the same thing from my kids here.
"But it isn't as easy to get that kind of hard work as it might be in Cuba.
There, the kids play baseball all day, all night if they can. Here they can do other things.
"At Miami High, most of the students have jobs. At Coral Park (in the upper-middle-class area of Westchester) most of them have cars. There are distractions from baseball. It isn't as important to these kids.
"In Cuba, if you make it as a baseball player, you're a privileged person. It's a form of escape. These kids don't have to escape from anything. The major leagues aren't the dream they used to be in Cuba. They take all this for granted.
"To the refugees just arriving here, the thought of playing baseball for a living in this country is like a dream. To the kids who have lived here for a while, baseball is something they love, something they enjoy, but it isn't an escape. They don't know what it means not to be free. They just don't care about the game as much as they would if they had grown up in Cuba.
"There the choice is baseball or a factory. Here, it might be baseball or law school. It makes a big defference in motivation."
There also is a major difference in the native American approach to baseball and the Cuban-American approach to the game: the involvement of the family, which, in the case of the Cuban youngster, often creates problems, according to coaches and scouts.
"In a Cuban family, everyone gets involved with a kid's baseball," Philbin said. "It isn't like most American families where they probably don't get involved unless the kid's a star. With the Cuban family, even if the kid is going to ride the bench, the parents, certainly the father, will go to almost every game."
The overprotective, overinvolved Cuban parent is a common complaint among coaches at all levels.
"You probably coach them a little differently than the American-born kid," Davis said. "You always have their parents to contend with because they all come to games and they know the game so well.
"My only problem with them is that sometimes the family orientation can get in the way of what you're trying to do. You might have a boy with a minor injury who should be able to practice. But if his mother tells him to stay home, he stay home, period."
"It's a matter of respect" Brande said. "The Cuban-American player is less likely to defy his parents on any subject than most native Americans, That's why I've had trouble convincing some of my kids that they should lift weights. Their fathers are telling them that they shouldn't, that it will hurt them."
Alex Gancedo, a relief pitcher this past season at Miami High, says there is a reason for the heavy parental involvement.
"At my home, at most Cuban homes when the men sit around and talk, they talk baseball," he said. "It's only natural that you should discuss what someone in the family who is playing the game is doing. And, naturally, everyone wants to see you succeed.
"When coach Davis yells sometimes the parents get upset.But I think most of his players understand that, underneath, he cares about us.
In fact, when Davis' best player, Crespo, a 1967 graduate, found himself with an opportunity to get out of baseball and go to business school, he went to Davis for advice.
"He asked me if he should stay in the minors or go to business school," Davis remembered. "I told him to go to business school. All they wanted to do was use him to fill up a minor league roster. That's no way to live
"I told him," Davis said, laughing, "that if he didn't go to business school, he was a stupid Cuban."
Crespo took Davis' advice and now runs a sports shop in Miami. He keeps his hand in baseball by scouting and working as a minor league hitting instructor for the San Diego Padres.
"He could be a millionaire and he'd still stay involved with baseball," Davis said. "It's in the blood."
Carlos Pascual stood beneath the palm tree, sweat pouring from his baseball shirt. He had been in the sun six hours and had two more to go. He looked drained.
Earlier in the week, he had been on a scouting trip for the Baltimore Orioles. During the winter, Pascual managed a baseball team in the Venezuelan League for the 14th straight year. He cannot remember the last time he had a vacation.
"I'll be 50 next year," he said. "Maybe I should slow down."
That is unlikely.
"This is my life, baseball," he said, sweeping a hand around at the young boys working at the game. "Just being around . . . "
Suddenly, Pascual broke off and ran toward the nearby batting cage, talking excitedly in Spanish to the 10-year-old swinging at the pitches the machine was throwing.
The youngster listened as Pascual talked. Then he swung at two more pitches as the short, punchy man watched. Pascual nodded his head, satisfied. p
Slowly, Pascual walked back to the shade of the tree.
"He won't be a major leaguer," he said. "Almost none of these kids will. But the game will be important to them even when they can't lift a bat anymore. It's important that they learn it correctly.
"It will be a part of their lives as long as they live."