HAVANA -- This is the toughest road trip in baseball. More tiring than a two-week hop on the West Coast. More nerve-wracking than a three-game series under the lights and the jets at Shea Stadium.
"In Cuba, they bring new meaning to the term 'home-field advantage,' " pitcher David Tuttle (Santa Clara University) of the U.S. baseball team said. "In the United States, the music and the singing is saved for between innings. But here, it is during the game."
For up to 10 games in the next two weeks, the U.S. team will be playing against its opponents on the field and the salsa bands in the stands during the 11th Pan American Games. The United States is relying on its best-available college talent to gain a top-four place and a berth in the baseball tournament at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
"When we first greeted the team in June, I told the boys of the importance of this season," said Ron Polk, the U.S. head coach, who runs the baseball program at Mississippi State.
"We feel the players know exactly what we're talking about. We want the U.S.A. to be participating in baseball in 1992 at the Olympics, and we know what is at stake."
The U.S. team begins the Pan Am tournament tomorrow against the Dominican Republic. The Americans are one of five contending teams playing for four Olympic spots. Pan Am favorite Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Canada are the other powers trying to reach Barcelona.
The Cubans, seven-time Pan Am champions, are more vulnerable than usual as they try to paste together a pitching staff. Rene Arocha defected to the United States and right-hander Lazaro Valle was out with a blood clot in his throwing arm.
But before meeting the Cubans for a gold medal, the U.S. team must survive eight preliminary games and one medal-round semifinal. The Americans are led by left fielder Chris Roberts of of Florida State and right-handed pitcher Jeff Ware of Old Dominion.
"We're not thinking about not qualifying," said pitcher Tony Phillips of Southern Mississippi. "We'll get the job done. The only thing that would get in our way is an epidemic or a very rare disease."
In Cuba, anything is possible. After winning two of three games against the Cubans last month in Santiago, all the American players came down with La Turista -- the familiar upset stomach south of the border. But the team says it is adequately prepared on this trip, packing bottled water and Pepto-Bismol.
Actually, the Americans faced a more daunting obstacle back home. Seven juniors, including the Baltimore Orioles' top draft pick -- Mark Smith of Southern California -- committed to playing with the team. But after the June baseball draft, the players dropped off the team.
"The agents were the biggest problem we had," Polk said. "They didn't want the players to get cut or get hurt."
Major League Baseball cushions the amateur program during the Olympic year, allowing 20 drafted college players to sign contracts, then play for the national team. But for these games, it's every team and player for himself.
"I gave up signing with the Cincinnati Reds to spend my summer doing this," said Tuttle, one of four juniors on the team. "I hope to give guys a chance to play next summer in Barcelona."
Even sophomores had to make difficult decisions to play with the national team. Jeffrey Hammonds of Stanford hasn't been home since Christmas, completing exams June 6 and joining the team's training camp in Millington, Tenn.
"I don't know if you remember what it's like to be a college sophomore, but it's hard to be away from your family for that long," he said. "I looked at the stakes. I didn't feel like I could play better baseball this summer."
What would happen next summer if Hammonds is drafted? Would the center fielder delay the start of his professional career to take a flyer on the Olympics?
"If I do get drafted it will be hard to say no, to walk away from this team," he said. "A lot of baseball players never get a chance to play in the Olympics."
The 20 players assembled in Cuba are trying to ensure that other Americans get a chance to play ball at the Olympics. Their goal appears reachable. Beating the Cubans appears unlikely.
"If we lose, it would be embarrassing," Tuttle said. "Most guys haven't talked about that. We have an excellent team. We aim to get to Barcelona."