Cubans' delay game ties up opponents but not shoelaces

Ken Rosenthal

July 30, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

BARCELONA, Spain -- Perhaps we should be grateful Fidel Castro won't permit Cubans to play in the majors. These guys make those nightly American League marathons look like sprints.

Some teams panic when they get down 5-0 in the first inning. The Cubans take a siesta, rousing themselves only to try another pickoff throw or tie another shoelace.

What's the hurry when you can drive the opponent crazy?

Last night, Cuba spotted the U.S. Olympic team the aforementioned five runs, then crawled back to win, 9-6. The game lasted four hours, ending at 1 a.m. Barcelona time.

"If we had scored more, it would be 3 o'clock in the morning," U.S. coach Ron Fraser said. "They slow the pace down. That's part of their philosophy."

The Cuban fans didn't care. They blew whistles, clapped rhythmically and chanted "Vic-tor Me-sa" in honor of their 32-year-old center fielder.

Just think of Cuba as playing the baseball equivalent of a four-corners offense, but using its delay tactics mostly on defense and only when behind.

You've heard of the shot clock.

Fraser wants a pitch clock.

After the game, he criticized both the umpires and the International Baseball Association for not enforcing a rule that supposedly allows only 20 seconds between pitches.

The Cubans routinely took more, stopping to tie their shoelaces so many times that Fraser told the umpire he would happily send over new ones.

This is the first year baseball is a medal sport in the Olympics, and a curious Spaniard who attended last night's game probably wouldn't come back.

"We have to be careful people don't get turned off to baseball," Fraser said. "The Cubans tend to drag out ballgames. It's like an all-day event."

Of course, Fraser's team made five of the game's nine errors, and his pitchers allowed 13 hits, hit two batsmen, made two errors and threw a run-scoring wild pitch.

Whatever the reasons -- and the lack of artistry was foremost among them -- last night's epic hardly qualified as a ringing endorsement for the grand old game.

As Olympic sports go, fencing might be more appealing. Ditto for rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming. And, what the heck, team handball and Greco-Roman wrestling.

The Cubans are the best amateur team in the world, but as Fraser noted, they frequently get bored in international competition. Maybe they fell behind 5-0 last night just for fun.

They've won nine of the last 11 Pan Am Games and 19 of the last 23 world championships in which they've played. The only thing that keeps them motivated is probably a fear of Castro.

"I don't know what the political implications are, but it's very important for them to win the gold," Fraser said. "I can feel the pressure just talking to their manager. He's got to win the gold."

The United States, featuring 14 No. 1 draft picks, is as good a team as Cuba will face. But its staff isn't nearly as talented as the 1988 group that included Charles Nagy, Jim Abbott and Ben McDonald.

So, how good are the Cubans?

Fraser predicted they could win 60 to 70 games as a major-league expansion team, but that's stretching it. The pitching isn't very good, and many stars are aging.

Plus, as Fraser said, "The pace they set sometimes affects them. They don't turn it on and turn it off as well as they should. It hurts them at the plate. It hurts them defensively."

Still, the ability is there. Second baseman Antonio Pacheco and third baseman Omar Linares are believed to be major-league caliber, and shortstop German Mesa isn't far behind.

Before the game, Fraser made like Sparky Anderson, claiming the only way the U.S. team could win was if he managed in near-reckless fashion, keeping runners in motion the entire game.

"It's like rolling the dice," Fraser said. "We can look very bad. I may walk in here after the game, and you'll all start laughing. But I've got no other choice."

Of course, that was before Michael Tucker hit a three-run homer, before the United States extended its lead to 5-0, before Cuba took its siesta.

Maybe it's best we don't see these guys too often. Our major leagues are expert procrastinators. They don't need any more ideas.

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