HAVANA — HAVANA -- This is what it is like for a United States athlete to "go for the bronze" at the Pan American Games. The stands are half-filled. The game is a go-through-the-motions waltz. Victory isn't so much celebrated as it is endured.
"It's hard to swallow and chew on," basketball player Mike Peplowski said. "Any time you play for the U.S. in any sport, anything less than a gold medal is subpar. No athlete wants to play for third place."
So there was the U.S. men's basketball team yesterday, beating up on Cuba, 93-74. And there was the U.S. baseball team, slogging through a 2-1, 15-inning victory over the Dominican Republic. The winners didn't relish winning. But they weren't about to give back the bronze medals.
ZTC In basketball, the U.S. men were led by Maryland's Walt Williams and Tracy Murray, who had 15 points each, and Christian Laettner, who had 13 and almost single-handedly fouled out the Cuban front line.
The only spark in the game was a little pushing and shoving as the teams headed for the locker room at halftime. Cuba's Noangel Luaces slapped Murray, and Peplowski, an enforcer from Michigan State, intervened.
It looked as if Wrestlemania had come to Cuba.
"Boys," Peplowski said. "Adam [Murray] and the one guy were exchanging cooking recipes, discussing the best way to make hamburgers. One of them thought a coal fire would be best. One though a wood fire. Actually, the Cuban guy got angry and pushed Adam. I had to push the guy back. He had it coming. You can't just stand there and become a punching bag."
Williams was nearly flipped with 4 minutes, 55 seconds remaining, when he was submarined on a layup attempt by Angel Caballero. Williams, who broke his left leg playing for the Terrapins last season, survived the fall.
"I've never had that happen before," he said. "I had no idea at all he'd do something like that."
Williams said: "It was tough to get up for a game like this. Pride alone drove us."
The basketball team began this tournament with great expectations. But the players experienced little joy.
The tournament opened with Grant Hill shattering a backboard before a victory over Cuba and closed with another routine win. In between was a semifinal loss to Puerto Rico that sent the United States staggering for its first bronze medal in Pan Am Games history. In 10 previous Pan Am events, the United States won eight golds and one silver.
"It was actually very exciting," said Hill, who finished with 10 points. "Good basketball. It was better than I thought it would be. We had a fun time with our teammates and coaching staff. I feel very fortunate that I could see Cuba."
The U.S. baseball players are experienced hands in Cuba, frequently touring the island. But after absorbing a 7-1 defeat against Puerto Rico in the semifinals, the players had little enthusiasm to play one more game.
The game at Latin American Stadium dragged on through extra innings before the United States scored the winning run in the 15th on a single by left fielder Chris Roberts of Florida State.
Jeff Hammonds, a center fielder from Stanford, led off the 15th with a double to left. After Steve Rodriguez flied to right, Roberts singled to left. Hammonds raced around third and beat the throw to the plate, setting off a restrained celebration.
Clearly, finishing third had few rewards for a U.S. team that already accomplished its primary goal -- qualifying for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
The Dominican Republic's starting pitcher, Felix Nova, lasted 13 innings. He allowed a home run to Todd Taylor to lead off the
second, but then settled down and bewitched the United States with an assortment of side-armed sinkers.
"What did he throw, 220 pitches?" U.S. coach Ron Polk said. When told Nova threw 163 pitches, Polk said: "Is that all? We just wanted to get this thing over with."
U.S. starter David Tuttle allowed two hits through seven innings. But, in the eighth, the Dominican Republic put together two hits for a run that knocked Tuttle out. Relief pitcher John Dettmer went the rest of the way.
"It's disappointing not to win the gold," Dettmer said. "But we'll take the bronze."
Hammonds said the United States played well in the tournament and at least can look forward to going to the Olympics next year.
"We're bringing something home," he said. "We got to the Olympics. Our chances of winning the gold at the Olympics are very good. We weren't very together this time. We'll have more experience. We'll be contenders."