HAVANA -- High noon, and the place was filled.
They sat in aisles and stood on staircases, and packed the Latin American Stadium so tight that security forces threw padlocks on the entry gates and turned away thousands two hours before the first pitch was even thrown yesterday.
No one even knew how many people had managed to get in. It could have been 45,000 or 55,000 or 65,000. The crowd just seemed to spill out everywhere, even up to the rooftops of the apartment buildings that overlooked the left-field bleachers.
The college baseball players from the United States never had seen anything like this. When they walked on to the field, a dozen of them brought along cameras and began taking pictures.
The Cubans beat the Americans, 3-2. They won because this first baseman named Lourdes Gurriel hit a home run and then whipsawed a double off the top of the center-field wall to score the third run. They won because of a wisp of a shortstop named German Mesa, who dived into the dirt to his left and turned Charles Johnson's one-out, bases-loaded ground-ball in the eighth into the sweetest inning-ending double play you've ever seen.
U.S. coach Ron Polk said: "We played a great game. We're all proud. We're going to see these guys again."
Make the date for Saturday's Pan American Games gold-medal game. Cuba, with a 7-0 record, and the United States, 5-1, are in the medal round and are expected to play for the gold.
For six games, the Cubans appeared invincible, bombarding their opponents by a 94-12 margin, inflating their batting averages above .500. But they came across Jeff Ware, a 6-foot-3 right-hander from Old Dominion. Once he stopped bouncing wild pitches in the dirt, Ware dominated with six strikeouts.
"I didn't look at it as pressure," he said. "I looked at it as fun."
It was wonderful stuff. The crowd doing the wave and Gurriel hitting a home run. The crowd roaring and Victor Mesa sending a sacrifice fly to center to score Jose Raul Delgado. And here came this guy Gurriel again, sending the ball over Hammonds' glove to the top of the center-field fence for a double that drove in Antonio Pachecho.
But the Americans would not be intimidated. Hammonds interrupting the fiesta, flying to third when starting pitcher Jorge Valdes turned a fourth-inning roller into two errors. Hammonds scoring on a Steve Rodriguez ground out. Hammonds opening the sixth with a double and turning for home on a Roberts single.
And then the American eighth against reliever Omar Ajete. Bases loaded, one out, Roberts, the big catcher from Miami, smashing the ball up the middle. German Mesa, El Mago, the Magician, cutting to his left, picking up dirt and a white ball, flipping the ball to Pachecho, who doubled Roberts at first. The crowd screaming and The Magician pumping his fist.
"That was a big-league double play," Polk said. "Mesa is the key to the game. I've seen German cover a bit of ground, but I didn't think he'd be able to get it and flip it. If he doesn't make that play, we win."
But the play was made and now everyone, the Cubans, the Americans, the crowd, waits for a rematch.