INDIANAPOLIS -- Baseball lightning struck the Pan Am Games a week ago; the real stuff hit just outside the left field fence yesterday. Happily, what the scary bolt seemed to deaden was the political electricity here, so all the gold medal game turned out to be was sensational sport.

Until a storm interrupted a U.S. surge in the first inning, much of the tension had been directed toward the stands. With all the fuss that had followed the Cubans throughout these two-plus weeks, what would happen when the third highest official in their government jetted in?

Nothing, it developed. Nothing that for an instant detracted from the unique game two divergent counties share -- and play so well. As is supposed to happen, the better team won.

But Cuba is not as superior as the final 13-9 score would seem, for the United States pitched itself dry getting to the championship game. From the storm, there came a balmy midwestern dusk. From the rain of Cuban homers, there was no relief.

The game ended with a nice show of U.S. sportsmanship and this thought: too bad these guys can't get together like this regularly. In addition to banners and intense interest, there was one other factor that made this showdown seem like a World Series: the victory gave Cuba the edge in its summer competition with the United States, four games to three.

Amateur sociologists among the sellout crowd in this lovely little park, with ivy crawling up most of the brick outfield wall, were as intrigued as baseball buffs.

There was the business of suffocating security that included a few police walking a rare beat: the rooftop of Bush Stadium. For whatever reasons, the post-storm mood was strictly baseball, to the point where during the seventh inning a cop directly behind the Cuban dugout could be seen munching a hot dog.

Only in amateur baseball would the players help the grounds crew haul the tarp across the infield. With that first-inning 2-0 lead and the bases loaded, the United States was eager to keep the surface as firm as possible.

Trouble was, the Cubans didn't bother to stop at too many bases. They hit four of the most magnificant home runs you could imagine, one of which might have knocked the scoreboard out of whack had the storm not already accomplished that.

From not getting a hit for two-plus innings, Cuba belted two home runs in the third and two more in the fifth. Too quickly it got to the point where ace reliever Cris Carpenter needed bullpen help -- and no one was available.

"I know, I know," Carpenter had replied the night before, when he was asked about possibly having to perform after eight tough innings the prior two games. "But I haven't played all summer to back out now.

"The heat of the moment, the excitement will take away all the pain and soreness . . . We've played all summer to be the best; if I've got to be there, I'll be there."

He was, in the sixth. He struck out four of the first five Cubans he faced -- and retired seven straight. Gradually, inexorably, Carpenter got tired -- and shelled.

Still, it was remembered that far more had gone right than wrong in these Games. When he finally was pulled, Carpenter doffed his cap and hugged some teammates. His earned-run average in 14 earlier innings was 0.00; his team had clinched a spot in the Olympics with a tight victory over Canada the night before.

So the United States lost, but hardly was defeated. The experience, especially playing the Cubans in Cuba in July, had been memorable.

"An old city," pinch hitter Rick Hirtensteiner said of Havana. "Old buildings, old cars. Like 1956 models you don't know how still could be running, but were."

"Very exciting playing in front of 60,000 people {in Havana}," said Ty Griffin. "We were kinda blinded at first, but soon realized we could play with them.

"The fans there appreciated our good plays more than I thought they would. I hit a home run, and got a standing ovation."

The United States won two of the five games. But Ted Wood admitted: "When Fidel was there, they could do no wrong."

The U.S. team did just enough wrong to force Griffin's dramatic home run in the initial collision here last Saturday. That halted Cuba's winning streak for the Pan Am Games at 33.

After the United States had not played especially well in edging Canada, Wood tried to be positive: "The game after we don't hit, we tend to explode."

Nine runs certainly qualifies as an explosion; it wasn't quite enough. Neither was a summer of preparation, except for the taste it offers for those who hope to make baseball a career.

"Seems like it was a 4 a.m. wakeup call every day," Griffin admitted. "You play in one town one day and head for another the next. You're tired for the games."

The team bus got almost hopelessly lost once in Kentucky; another time, the bus carrying the bags stalled -- so the players, in the rain, were forced to form a human conveyer belt.

More than anything, the Games proved to the U.S. players that they could perform with the Cubans, and also get along with them.

"There was a friendship {in the Pan Am village}," Carpenter said. "We ragged them a little, and they didn't understand it; they ragged us a little, and I guess we didn't understand.

"We know their friendly side." Sadly, the teams left the stadium through respective dugouts yesterday -- and quickly headed their separate ways.