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Despite its problems, Cuba's diamond vision is clear On this island, baseball is more than a pastime

HAVANA — HAVANA -- This is what it is like: a big baseball park that sits amid dingy factories and drab, three-story apartment buildings begins to fill with fans two hours before the game. Cheerleaders in purple tights, black shorts and white shirts climb on the dugouts and dance. A siren wails and a drum beats.

There is no popcorn, but there are plenty of vanilla cookies. The smell of hot dogs is replaced by the aroma of pizza. Coca-Cola is a foreign extravagance, but Tropi-Cola is served in small paper bags shaped like cups.

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When the team dressed in red and white takes the field on a hot, humid summer evening, the crowd stands and chants and the players smile. Flags unfurl, and the celebration of past triumphs and future victories begins.

Ah, but the baseball is beautiful in Cuba.

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Cuba is isolated politically and devastated economically, but there is a mystique about this place and about this game. The sugar cane harvest may be rotten, but the baseball is wonderful. Fidel Castro is growing old, but the great third baseman Omar Linares remains so young.

In Cuba, baseball is an obsession and a diversion. There are no sky boxes in an outcast, socialist state that can't even pay its international debts. There aren't even any tickets.

"You've seen games here; people are crazy," said Cuba manager Jorge Fuentes. "Everyone puts everything into it, because we know our responsibility. The whole world is depending on us."

To the other 38 nations of the Western Hemisphere that are here, the Pan American Games may be a multisport celebration and competition. But, to the Cubans, this is one giant baseball tournament that reaches a dramatic peak today, when Cuba meets the United States. The gold-medal game is Saturday, but the Americans are here now, here today in 55,000-seat Estadio Latino Americana.

"Everywhere I've been going, people have been saying, 'Domingo, Domingo,' " U.S. coach Ron Polk said. "I had to ask someone what it meant. 'Sunday, Sunday.' Everyone was wait ing for this game."

And why not? Baseball is the strand that temporarily joins two neighbors who are separated by 90 miles and 32 years of mistrust and bitterness. It was American sailors who packed their baseballs and bats on Navy ships and introduced the game to Cuba during the Spanish-American war. And, now, scouts from American teams return, looking at players they cannot sign, the ultimate so-close, yet-so-far tease of sports.

"The tradition is the Americans brought the baseball and the Cubans just picked it up," Fuentes said.

Before the 1959 revolution, Cuban baseball was a professional game. There was even a Class AAA team in Havana called the Sugar Canes. The best players, men such as Tony Perez, Tony Oliva, Minnie Minoso and Luis Tiant, left the island to play in the U.S. major leagues.

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Under Castro, the Cubans are strictly amateur. They've won the past five Pan Am Games titles and seven overall. They've won three straight world championships.

But it's not just titles that mark Cuban baseball. This is a game of personality and passion.

The Cubans play baseball like the Boston Celtics run a fast break. They hit 20 home runs in their first five tournament games. They had a no-hitter.

"The No. 1 characteristic of a Cuban baseball player is that he is always moving and he is always fundamentally sound," Fuentes said. "He can bunt. He can hit to all fields, and he can run. Naturally, Cubans are fast people. But the best thing about this ++ team is we're able to combine speed with power. It's a natural characteristic we have, not just on offense, but on defense, too."

They have a shortstop named German Mesa who is a dead ringer for the San Diego Padres' Tony Fernandez. Only Mesa is a better fielder and potentially a better hitter.

They have a left fielder named Ornestes Kindelan, a 27-year-old bull who punches balls to all fields. Every designated hitter in the American League should be thankful that Kindelan is a loyal son of the revolution, willing to play for pesos and forgo dollars.

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They have a center fielder named Victor Mesa who is known around the island as El Loco. At the World Championships two years ago, El Loco kept asking for time at the plate, but the umpire said, "Play ball." Out of the batter's box when a pitch came to the plate, El Loco lunged forward and hit a home run. After circling the bases, he made a significant gesture that can be seen every night Madonna is in concert. The umpire, a stranger to all things Madonna, ejected El Loco.

"I remind some people of the old Cuba," Victor Mesa said. "I represent the old Cuba way. A lot of people say I'm a clown, that I'm funny. But I keep going to play."

The new Cuba is Linares, the politically correct superstar. He is 23, a six-year veteran of international play and a member in good standing in the national legislature. From a distance, he looks small. But move closer, and notice the bulging muscles in his forearms and the long, tapered legs. He was born to hit, and born to fly around the bases.

Linares has batted over .400 five times. He hit 35 home runs in 161 games last year. In his home stadium in the province of Pinar del Rio, he once hit a ball to straight-away center, over the wall, over the bleachers, to the top of the scoreboard, 500 feet from the plate.

"He has excellent contact, excellent power, and he is the fastest player on the team," Fuentes said. "He is a monster."

He is a product of the Cuban system, which resembles one giant American major-league organization. Like all of the players, Linares started playing ball as a kid, latched on with his local team at 14, and worked his way swiftly up the ladder to the national team.

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Teams from 18 provinces divided in four divisions play in a National Series, a 111-game season that begins the year. The top players are moved into an eight-team, 60-game Select Series. Finally, the best players are named to the national team. Overseeing the operation is Fuentes, 41, an ex-shortstop with a bulging gut and calm, fatherly disposition.

"You can't change a man," he said. "We work with them a lot. We teach them a lot. But the first thing we do is find the talent. You can't make gold. But we'll take diamonds from the coal."

They may be diamonds, but they're paid as workers. Monthly salaries range from 250 to 500 pesos, a livable wage if you don't mind making sacrifices for jeans that cost 125 pesos. Teams travel by bus, and often never leave the stadium during road trips, the players sleeping in cots set up in the locker rooms.

They hold batting practice without batting cages, sharing helmets and aluminum bats with frayed tape on the handles. Starting pitchers take turns throwing 80-mph fastballs to the hitters, as the manager gives instructions while standing 10 feet from the plate. Very few balls are hit in foul territory.

"We're supposed to go parallel with the public," Victor Mesa said. "But everyone on the street comes up to me. I go to a store to buy something, and people won't let me pay. I don't like that. I go to a restaurant, and I'm standing at the cash register and they won't let me pay. The other guys, too. That's one thing I don't like about the U.S. -- the players and the people don't know each other. They live apart. It is not a criticism. That is just my impression."

The United States beckons, but the players rarely hear the call. The team returned from a trip to the United States last month with 23 new ceiling fans, but without its third pitcher, Rene Arocha. The defection created hardly a ripple.

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"That was his decision," Victor Mesa said. "We go to the United States all the time. If we want to stay, we can stay. But no one stays. Everyone knows we could make money. Our conscience won't let us. We always come back. We have complete liberty. They used to hold us back. Not now, though."

The Cubans show no sign of letting their top players bat for dollars in America.

"One of the first things we did here in Cuba was eliminate professional sports," said Alberto Juantorena, the 1976 Olympic 400- and 800-meter champion who is vice president of Cuba's National Institute of Sports.

"Cuban sports people have the quality," he added. "They are here, and they are happy the way they are doing it. They feel very happy and at home on their land."

Major-league scouts can only watch and wonder. Mike Brito of the Los Angeles Dodgers is here with his trademark Panama hat and his radar gun, clocking Cuba's left-handed starting staff of Jorge Valdes, Omar Ajete and Osvaldo Fernandes.

"They've grown up with the game," said Brito, born and raised three miles from the main stadium in Havana. "They have so many players. They have too many players. They're looking to get them all playing on the top level. Cuba is like America; they progress so easy. To me, American players are the best, but the Cubans are close to them."

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The scouts argue. The pitchers, they say, don't throw hard enough, with the exception of Lazara Valle, a Dwight Gooden clone who is sidelined with a blood clot in his right arm. Victor Mesa, 30, and Kindelan, 27, they say, are too old. Antonio Pacheco may be the best-fielding second baseman in the world, the Ryne Sandberg of the Caribbean, but his hitting is suspect. German Mesa is a prospect. And Linares, why there is a franchise, the next Jose Canseco.

"I've had no offers," Linares said. "I'm not interested anyway. My only blank check is in Cuba. It is the only one I'm interested in. I am a product of the Cuban Revolution. I don't think a blank check is more important than the Cuban people."

The revolution continues. Today, the people will gather in the big stadium in the old neighborhood, and the curtain will be lifted. For a few hours, there will be nothing but baseball. And, then, the curtain will come down and the mystery will continue.

;/ Forbidden fruit ripens in the tropical sun.


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