Cuban fans see O's coming, losing; Away from talks, word is Cuban 'ball is best'


HAVANA -- In Havana's scenic historic district, the love of baseball mingles easily with a fine cigar and a cool drink. The locals banter amiably about today's game between the popular Industriales and the visiting team from Villa Clara, and wonder about the rumors of a possible visit by a major-league team from the United States.

The Baltimore Orioles are not well-known in Cuba. It might be the only place in the baseball world where it is difficult to find anyone who has heard of Cal Ripken, much less B. J. Surhoff, who has accompanied the Orioles delegation that is trying to arrange a home-and-home exhibition series with a team of Cuban All-Stars.

The goodwill mission, which arrived late Friday and began serious negotiations with Cuban sports officials yesterday, has not been heavily publicized here because of the fear that the talks will fall victim to the political differences between the United States and Cuba, but word gets around.

The bartender at La Bodeguita del Medio, a spot once frequented by American author Ernest Hemingway, hopes the rumors are true.

"I would absolutely love to see that happen," Reynaldo Lima said through an interpreter. "I'd like to see something concrete develop not just the possibility. I follow major league baseball and I love baseball in this country. I'm not saying this because I'm a chauvinist. I really think our baseball comes really close to the level of the major leagues."

That remains to be seen, of course. The Cuban National Team has played against U.S. amateur teams many times, but no major-league team has appeared on Cuban soil since the Brooklyn Dodgers used Cuba as a spring training refuge while they prepared Jackie Robinson for his historic major-league debut in 1947.

The Orioles hope to change that this spring, but arranging a humanitarian exhibition series with a country that does not have diplomatic relations with the United States is a complex task, especially when both delegations have to overcome four decades of distrust between the governments.

Angelos has not shied away from that challenge. He met yesterday with Jose Fernandez, vice president of the Cuban Council of Ministers, and later took part in a series of meetings aimed at ironing out the details of the proposed series. The talks will continue today with discussions with the Cuban Institute for Radio and Television over the broadcast coverage of the two exhibition games.

Will the games go on? There still is much to discuss, but Cuban baseball fans already are getting excited about the possibility of seeing their favorite players compete against one of the top professional teams from the United States.

Street vendor Hector Del Rio was wearing a New York Yankees cap as he peddled collectibles in an open market area in the historic district, but he said he would be just as happy to see the Orioles play a game this spring in Havana's 55,000-seat Latin American Stadium.

"I wouldn't miss it," he said. "I follow the league here more, but news about the major leagues does come out through the sports programs on TV, so you do find out about the major leagues. Whenever there is a big accomplishment here -- like when Rafael Orlando Acevei performed an unassisted triple play -- it's always compared to the majors.

"But I think Cuban baseball is the best. It would be a real standoff. The stadium would be completely full. They would have to make special rules for all of the people who would come."

First, however, they would have to come to an agreement on whether the Latin American Stadium would be adequate for the event, which is why the Orioles brought along representatives from Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association. But that creates a very touchy area of negotiation, since the Cuban delegation might be sensitive to any dictates by the American contingent.

Still, there is one area that both sides definitely agree on: If both governments want it to happen, it will happen.

"Everybody in the world wants that," said Osvaldo Ferrats, a waiter at La Mina, a popular restaurant in the historic district. "I think it would be good. We have a good team and it would be a good game. They [the Orioles] will really enjoy coming to Cuba. We had a game against the Puerto Rican team and they really loved coming here. The quality of baseball was very high.

"The amateur teams that come here are not as high quality as the Cuban team. They are usually outclassed."

That probably would not be the case with the Orioles, a large-market American team with one of the highest payrolls in baseball, but enough Cuban players have proven themselves worthy of the majors that the outcome of the game would not be a foregone conclusion.

"This is just my personal opinion," said Lima, the bartender at La Bodeguita del Medio, "but if Cuba could have a team in the major leagues like the Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos in Canada, I think that in three or four years, that the Cuban team would play in the World Series."

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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