HAVANA -- This is what it is like: a big baseball park that sits amid dingy factories and drab, three-story apartment buildings begins to fill with fans two hours before the game. Cheerleaders in purple tights, black shorts and white shirts climb on the dugouts and dance. A siren wails and a drum beats.
There is no popcorn, but there are plenty of vanilla cookies. The smell of hot dogs is replaced by the aroma of pizza. Coca-Cola is a foreign extravagance, but Tropi-Cola is served in small paper bags shaped like cups.
When the team dressed in red and white takes the field on a hot, humid summer evening, the crowd stands and chants and the players smile. Flags unfurl, and the celebration of past triumphs and future victories begins.
Ah, but the baseball is beautiful in Cuba.
Cuba is isolated politically and devastated economically, but there is a mystique about this place and about this game. The sugar cane harvest may be rotten, but the baseball is wonderful. Fidel Castro is growing old, but the great third baseman Omar Linares remains so young.
In Cuba, baseball is an obsession and a diversion. There are no sky boxes in an outcast, socialist state that can't even pay its international debts. There aren't even any tickets.
"You've seen games here; people are crazy," said Cuba manager Jorge Fuentes. "Everyone puts everything into it, because we know our responsibility. The whole world is depending on us."
To the other 38 nations of the Western Hemisphere that are here, the Pan American Games may be a multisport celebration and competition. But, to the Cubans, this is one giant baseball tournament that reaches a dramatic peak today, when Cuba meets the United States. The gold-medal game is Saturday, but the Americans are here now, here today in 55,000-seat Estadio Latino Americana.
"Everywhere I've been going, people have been saying, 'Domingo, Domingo,' " U.S. coach Ron Polk said. "I had to ask someone what it meant. 'Sunday, Sunday.' Everyone was wait ing for this game."
And why not? Baseball is the strand that temporarily joins two neighbors who are separated by 90 miles and 32 years of mistrust and bitterness. It was American sailors who packed their baseballs and bats on Navy ships and introduced the game to Cuba during the Spanish-American war. And, now, scouts from American teams return, looking at players they cannot sign, the ultimate so-close, yet-so-far tease of sports.
"The tradition is the Americans brought the baseball and the Cubans just picked it up," Fuentes said.
Before the 1959 revolution, Cuban baseball was a professional game. There was even a Class AAA team in Havana called the Sugar Canes. The best players, men such as Tony Perez, Tony Oliva, Minnie Minoso and Luis Tiant, left the island to play in the U.S. major leagues.
Under Castro, the Cubans are strictly amateur. They've won the past five Pan Am Games titles and seven overall. They've won three straight world championships.
But it's not just titles that mark Cuban baseball. This is a game of personality and passion.
The Cubans play baseball like the Boston Celtics run a fast break. They hit 20 home runs in their first five tournament games. They had a no-hitter.
"The No. 1 characteristic of a Cuban baseball player is that he is always moving and he is always fundamentally sound," Fuentes said. "He can bunt. He can hit to all fields, and he can run. Naturally, Cubans are fast people. But the best thing about this ++ team is we're able to combine speed with power. It's a natural characteristic we have, not just on offense, but on defense, too."
They have a shortstop named German Mesa who is a dead ringer for the San Diego Padres' Tony Fernandez. Only Mesa is a better fielder and potentially a better hitter.
They have a left fielder named Ornestes Kindelan, a 27-year-old bull who punches balls to all fields. Every designated hitter in the American League should be thankful that Kindelan is a loyal son of the revolution, willing to play for pesos and forgo dollars.
They have a center fielder named Victor Mesa who is known around the island as El Loco. At the World Championships two years ago, El Loco kept asking for time at the plate, but the umpire said, "Play ball." Out of the batter's box when a pitch came to the plate, El Loco lunged forward and hit a home run. After circling the bases, he made a significant gesture that can be seen every night Madonna is in concert. The umpire, a stranger to all things Madonna, ejected El Loco.
"I remind some people of the old Cuba," Victor Mesa said. "I represent the old Cuba way. A lot of people say I'm a clown, that I'm funny. But I keep going to play."
The new Cuba is Linares, the politically correct superstar. He is 23, a six-year veteran of international play and a member in good standing in the national legislature. From a distance, he looks small. But move closer, and notice the bulging muscles in his forearms and the long, tapered legs. He was born to hit, and born to fly around the bases.