U.S.-Cuba game has some people seeing red again ATLANTA OLYMPICS

July 29, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

ATLANTA -- Just when you thought it was safe to discard your old "Better Dead Than Red" buttons, the Cold War is staging a comeback.

True, it's only baseball.

But as Cuban coach Jorge Fuentes said after yesterday's 10-8 victory over the United States, "I expect there to be a great party in Havana tonight."

The Cubans shouldn't get carried away -- they blew an eight-run lead, and likely will need to defeat the U.S. team again Friday for the gold medal.

This game merely served as Act I, offering proof that the United States can play with the Cubans, who haven't lost in major international competition since 1987.

The U.S. team rallied with four homers in the final three innings, and brought the potential winning run to the plate with one out in the ninth.

The crowd of 51,223 rose at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, chanting "USA! USA!" But Cuban reliever Pedro Lazo struck out the next two hitters to end the game.

"A ballgame worthy of these Olympics," Fuentes called it.

A ballgame worthy of an encore, especially considering that Cuba used its top three pitchers while the United States held back Seth Greisinger and Kris Benson for the medal round.

Fuentes was asked if the game carried added significance because of the political tensions between the countries.

"Absolutely," he said, smiling.

U.S. coach Skip Bertman also sensed the heightened emotions.

"This game has a little bit of politics to it, a little bit of Americanism vs. socialism," he said. "There isn't much of that anymore in the Olympics.

"What people might not realize is the value Cubans put on gold medals in athletics, particularly in baseball. All sports are big, but think baseball is the biggest.

"I think ultimately if we play 'em close, it will work in our favor. The pressure will be enormous on Jorge Fuentes, his staff and his players to beat the U.S. It's not as much pressure to us."

Fuentes agreed, joking that if the Cuban players lose, they will be considered "orphans." Clearly, his team relishes beating the country that keeps embracing its defectors.

"I feel it would be the top attraction in these Olympics if the United States faced Cuba in the gold-medal game," said third baseman Omar Linares, apparently unaware of that Michael Johnson character.

Clearly, the Cubans' hunger is great.

They threw inside more often yesterday than the Orioles do all season. Starting pitcher Omar Luis plunked U.S. leadoff man Jason Williams twice, and hit his bat with another brushback pitch.

Was Williams surprised?

"I'm always surprised when they come at my head," he said.

What about when he was hit on 0-2?

"I'll take an 0-2 in the head any day to get on base," Williams volunteered, cheerfully.

U.S. starter Bill Koch responded by throwing at the Cubans' 3-4 hitters, Linares and Orestes Kindelan, in consecutive at-bats.

To be sure, the Cubans' style is different.

They took a 4-0 lead with two homers in the first inning yesterday -- then opened the second with three straight bunts, including one by Linares, who hit two homers.

Can the U.S. team beat them?

It would take a mammoth pitching effort -- the Cubans are batting .419 in the Olympics, averaging nearly four homers and 15 runs per game.

Still, they scored in only two innings yesterday. A couple of clutch hits, a couple of big defensive plays. . . .

"In one game, we can compete with Cuba," Bertman said. "I wouldn't want to play 'em best of seven."

The Cubans are simply too experienced. Indeed, the only way to beat them might be to send an All-Star team of American professionals to Sydney in 2000.

"In that case, we will also have our own Dream Team to play your Dream Team," Fuentes said.

And in theory, that team could include Rafael Palmeiro, Jose Canseco and Rey Ordonez, not to mention all those pitchers who recently defected.

The Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela also could form Dream Teams, but why look ahead?

The U.S. amateurs are competitive with the weakened Cuban national team right now. Bertman reminded reporters that the Americans have won six of their last nine exhibitions against Cuba, saying, "They respect us a lot."

Perhaps, but in big tournaments, the Cubans rise to another level.

Their defining characteristic?

"Hubris," Bertman said. "They have a great confidence, to the point of arrogance. They're very, very confident.

"When they got the two strikeouts at the end, they didn't jump up and down. They expect to win every ballgame."

For nine years, they've succeeded.

It's difficult to beat an opponent that is still fighting the Cold War.

Pub Date: 7/29/96

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