Cuba working hard to put best foot forward PAN AM GAMES

March 03, 1991|By Nancy Nusser | Nancy Nusser,Cox News Service

HAVANA -- Imagine if Fidel Castro, the world's premier revolutionary leader, had been drafted onto a professional U.S. baseball team when he was scouted more than 40 years ago.

Instead of creating the only communist nation in the Western Hemisphere, Castro might have become "a 64-year-old, pot-bellied first-base coach for some mediocre ball club," said James Blight, a research fellow at a Brown University foreign policy institute.

"The Cuban revolution would have been postponed," said Wayne Smith, a Cuba expert and former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Castro rejected the $5,000 contract offered him by the Giants, said Blight, who also pitched for the Detroit Tigers.

But in 30 years of leading Cuba, Castro has maintained an intense interest in sports, demonstrated most recently in his Herculean efforts to host the 1991 Panamerican Games.

The aging revolutionary is throwing all of Cuba's badly depleted resources into preparing for the Aug. 2-18 event. Though his government has given out bicycles because Cubans can no longer get unlimited gasoline, millions of Cuban pesos are being spent to prepare for the games.

"Even if the oil shortage gets worse, we will finish the work," Castro said during a recent news conference in Havana. "The Games are an international commitment by Cuba, a sacred commitment that we must honor."

With athletes from Canada to Chile invited, the Games give the communist government a chance to demonstrate Cuba's unusual sporting accomplishments and ability, despite an economic crisis, to pull off a major, international event.

"It's Cuba's way of asserting itself," Smith said.

Olympic officials say the Americans will send a 600-person delegation. But it may not include some top athletes. Already the prominent Santa Monica track team, which includes world record holder Carl Lewis, has indicated it will not go to the August event.

During the same month, Japan is to host the World Championship in track and field, considered far more important for athletes hoping to compete in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

"It [Japan] gives them a pretty good idea, a year out from Barcelona, of how they are placed in the world," said Jeff Cravens, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Nor does Cuba offer money prizes.

"With regard to these people, who have commercialized their sport, we will not make the least effort, not lift a finger to get them to come here," said Jose Ramon Fernandez, vice president of Cuba's Council of Ministers and director for the Panamerican Games.

Fernandez, who also masterminded Cuba's defense against the Bay of Pigs invasion, was showing journalists the sports facilities under construction in a Havana suburb called Cojimar.

More than 100 workers were putting up beams in the roof over the swimming pool and finishing the cycling track. In a push to finish, the government has called on the army for workers, Fernandez said.

"After the United States, we are indisputably the foremost sporting power in our continent," he said.

Cuba has top athletes in a number of sports, including boxing, basketball, track and baseball, in which the young Fidel showed tremendous promise.

He was scouted in the late forties by the New York Giants and the Washington Senators, Cuba and baseball experts say.

Blight, the academic and former pitcher, said the Giants scout reported that Castro was "huge," and "doesn't throw that hard, but he's got an amazing curve ball."

Blight said the scout was "flabbergasted" when Castro turned down the contract offer. Blight said he once took a copy of a Harper's Magazine story about the scouting effort to Cuba, where it was shown to Castro.

Blight said he was told that Castro "really enjoyed it."

Another of Cuba's celebrated sports stars is Teofilo Stevenson, one of history's few three-time Olympic gold medal winners in heavyweight boxing. He was sought by many U.S. managers, who believed he had a chance at becoming world champion.

Kirby Jones, an American who worked as a consultant to firms hoping to do business with Cuba, said he once tried to arrange a match between Stevenson and Muhammad Ali. The effort failed.

To box professionally, Stevenson would have had to defect. Though he had many chances -- since he travelled abroad -- he chose to remain in Cuba.

An enormous, hulking man, Stevenson lives in Havana and frequents its most cosmopolitan hotel, the Havana Libre, where he can be found having drinks with foreigners and Cuba's elite.

He drives an expensive car, and he lives in an attractive suburb. But some say his home is a gilded cage, since from Cuba he could not achieve the level of world stature his talent probably would have brought.

"He is an example of someone who had lots of opportunities to leave Cuba and take the big bucks, but he didn't," Jones said. "He was a true believer."

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