Cubans snap back at Lasorda, U.S., 6-1


SYDNEY, Australia - Hey, it's not political.

It's baseball.

At least, that's the world according to Tom Lasorda, who vowed to win one for the Cuban exiles in Miami and then watched last night as his U.S. Olympic baseball team was thumped by Cuba, 6-1.

So what if the benches emptied, spikes flew and tempers flared?

"We're thinking about winning the game," said Lasorda, the American coach. "Who the hell is thinking about diplomatic relations?"

It was testy, cranky baseball played out by two teams that have already clinched places in the medal round. The loss was the first for the U.S. team, which is tied with Cuba at 5-1. If both teams win their final preliminary games tonight, Cuba will go into the semifinals as the No. 1 seed. The gold-medal game Wednesday could be a Cuba-USA rematch.

At times, last night's game was so rough it looked as if an Australian rules football game was about to break out.

"This is a good Triple-A team that beat us," U.S. first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said. "If they want to play dirty, let them play dirty."

"They got a couple of more dirty shots than we did," added third baseman Sean Burroughs.

The Cubans said they were playing good, hard baseball.

"There were no bad intentions on our part," said Antonio Pacheco, Cuba's designated hitter. "It should not have to be played like that. And we don't play like that."

Aging and weakened by defections, the Cubans are trying to mount another run to hang on to their unofficial title as the world's best international team outside the major leagues.

They still field flawlessly and pitch with verve, backed by stars such as Omar Linares, Orestes Kindelan and German Mesa.

But there are cracks in the Cuban edifice, as witnessed by an earlier Olympics loss to the Dutch.

Still, the Cubans delivered.

They teed off for four runs against Rick Krivda, the Orioles farmhand who started and lasted two innings.

Cuba then cruised behind the seven-inning, eight-strikeout performance of pitcher Jose Ibar, a hard thrower with a nasty curve.

But Ibar's control deserted him with two outs in the top of the fourth when he plunked Ernie Young squarely on the back.

Young yelled at Cuban catcher Ariel Pestano, and when their paths crossed, he shoved him, clearing the benches. Plate umpire Carlos Rey of Puerto Rico held Pestano and restored order.

"The guy had pinpoint control and I get to be the beneficiary of a 94 mph fastball," Young said. "I'm upset because I know he hit me on purpose."

Young added: "The catcher crossed paths with me. He got in my way. I politely nudged him out of the way."

In the bottom of the fourth, Mientkiewicz threw what had to be the first body block in Olympic baseball history against Cuba's Miguel Caldes, who beat out a slow roller to third.

Mientkiewicz said he was protecting himself since Caldes was running far inside the base line.

"I'm not going to let them cheap-shot me," Mientkiewicz said.

A journeyman with the Minnesota Twins organization, Mientkiewicz also accused the Cubans of stealing the catcher's signs to the pitcher during the first two innings.

"They find ways to pick them up," he said. "It's pretty easy to hit when you know what's coming."

In the eighth, there was a ferocious home-plate collision when Cuban pinch runner Yobal Duenas slid in spikes high against U.S. catcher Pat Borders. In pain, Borders threw his mask and limped away, but later said he didn't think the runner "did anything dirty."

After the game, Lasorda, a most unusual diplomat, did his best to smooth over the rough spots.

"There is no hard feeling," he said. "All we wanted to do was beat them."

Yet Lasorda's pre-tournament taunt that he wanted to win one for the Cuban exiles in Miami seemed to hang in the air throughout the post-game news conferences.

"Yeah, that's what I said, I'd like to win the game for the people who had to leave the country," Lasorda said.

Cuban coach Servio Borges had a ready reply: "This victory is dedicated to [the] 11 million people of Cuba who saw us train and prepare."

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