"Baseball became part of the Cuban culture as it was emerging in the 1870s after the first wave of independence. Baseball was there at the birth of the nation," said Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, a Yale professor who wrote the recently published book, "The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball" (Oxford University Press).

Baseball became popular in Cuba in the late 19th century as prosperous sugar mill businessmen began sending their sons to the United States for college and they brought the sport back home, Gonzalez Echevarria writes.

At this time, Cubans would also fight two wars of independence from Spain, and American baseball came to be seen as yet another way to reject the Spaniards by turning away from their chosen, and savage, sport -- bullfighting -- for this newer and more genteel game.

The first games were rather cultured events -- often, the game would be followed by dinner and dancing in the gazebos built as part of the baseball field, and then more socializing and baseball chatter at a chic cafe, Gonzalez Echevarria writes.

With every change in Cuban life, baseball changed along with it.

Baseball was played on various levels -- sugar mill towns and cigar factories would form teams that competed against one another, and Cuba had an active professional baseball league until it was swept out with other private industries as part of Fidel Castro's revolution of 1959. As a result, the once free flow of players across the Straits of Florida stopped, but for the occasional defector.

Cubans, though, remain bilingual in baseball. The passion for pelota doesn't rule out a fondness for baseball.

Today's Orioles game brings the two together, at long last. Cuban officials, though, have decided that tickets will be handed out by invitation only, meaning the average fan can't just walk in. It will be televised, however, and surely every last ball and strike will find its way through the grapevine.

Although the state-run press reported little about the game until Friday, the pre-event chatter began long ago.

The reach of baseball is so great in this country that even Gregorio Fuentes, the now 101-year-old fishing captain who served as the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," has an opinion. Fuentes, who lives in the seaside town of Cojmar, is the real-life model for Santiago, the fisherman who gets through an epic battle with a giant marlin by thinking about the great DiMaggio playing through a bone spur.

Fuentes, though, has a word of warning to the Americans who challenge the Cubans.

"They will find it hard to win against Cuba," he said. "There are just a few in the world like the Cubans."

Others are less certain. There is angst over the American wood bats vs. the Cuban aluminum bats; there is the fear that the Orioles have been training a long time for this game, while the Cubans, culled from a number of different clubs, may not jell in time as a team.

In the meantime, there is pelota to be played.

This particular field is a narrow courtyard between two crumbling buildings on the Malecon, the serpentine promenade that runs along the Havana seashore. The ball is a wad of tape, the bat an impossibly skinny stick.

And yet, the teen-age boys at play chase every fly ball at full speed, even if it takes them over broken bottles and festering garbage. Every close call is disputed and every hit run out. Every RBI in this pickup game is dutifully recorded in a notebook by Yoaris Quintana, 17.

Asked the names of the teams, he shyly smiled and said, "Industriales and Pinar del Rio," two popular Cuban teams.

But in his score book the team names he has actually written down are CHI and CLE, the scoreboard abbreviations for the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians. The boys start talking baseball as played in America.

"Jim Thome, I like his style," one player piped up, mimicking the Cleveland player's batting stance. "Brady Anderson, 50 home runs," another boy announces with a punch in the air, a couple of seasons late with that particular statistic.

As a group of Cuban schoolchildren recently began chanting when they met the American kids who had come as part of the Orioles visit: "Play ball!"