HAVANA -- As a "people-to-people" exchange, perhaps the Orioles' trek to this island nation ended a success. As a competition against a diluted Cuban all-star team, yesterday's performance by an $81.4 million payroll narrowly avoided becoming an international embarrassment.
It took 11 innings, most of four hours and a little pluck for the Orioles to subdue the Cuban amateurs, 3-2. Only an up-the-middle, two-out single by designated hitter Harold Baines that scored Will Clark allowed the imperialistos to escape with nothing worse than a scare.
Jesse Orosco, the only Orioles player besides Baines born before the Communist takeover of Cuba, pitched a scoreless bottom half to earn the save. "They were a scrappy bunch," Orosco said after the team returned in uniform to the Mellia Habana hotel. "They don't really have a big powerful hitter, but they pitch well and play hard."
Outhit and nearly outmaneuvered, the Orioles scrambled for a win that hardly salved their impatience over the whole production. Afterward Miller expressed his displeasure to a Major League Baseball official while having to wait for the Cubans to conclude their half of a postgame news conference.
"Nobody came here thinking about making history," said left fielder B. J. Surhoff. "We came down here to play a game. I think they saw a good game."
From a competitive standpoint the Orioles had little to gain except exposure. They downplayed the event as merely one of 25 exhibitions to prepare for an April 5 opener. Still, Miller couldn't help but cite a six-hour round trip from Vero Beach on Friday, a four-hour trip on Saturday and a hurried flight to Havana as creating additional distractions. The club lost an additional hour when Cuba advanced its clock yesterday morning and then was expected to attend a 9 a.m. news conference at a downtown hotel.
The effects showed. Representing their country and Major League Baseball, the Orioles were 12 o'clock hitters for a 1 o'clock game as they put on an impressive batting practice display then lost it against live pitching.
The Orioles grabbed a 2-0 lead on catcher Charles Johnson's towering, second-inning home run off Cuba starter Jose Ibar, who had won 19 games last season. Then they coasted behind Scott Erickson until the seventh inning. Jose Contreras, considered by many to be the Cubans' best starting pitcher, followed Ibar with eight shutout innings that included two hits and 10 strikeouts.
Asked about the Cubans' ability to compete against major-league talent, Miller said, "It's very difficult off one game. I'm not sure I see enough power, but certainly I see enough pitching."
The Orioles were outhit 10-6, and pushed only three runners into scoring position between the second and 11th innings. They gained a bit of consolation by leaving Luis Lazo with the loss. Lazo is considered among the elite Cuban arms and dominated at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Surrounded by a surprisingly sedate, invitation-only crowd of 50,000, Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos watched the entire game at the right hand of Cuban President Fidel Castro. To Castro's left sat commissioner Bud Selig. Conversation stuck to baseball, Angelos said. No politics.
However, the pre-game scene overflowed with politics. Dressed in green fatigues, Castro introduced himself in the Orioles dugout. Uncomfortable with the political scene that he last week labeled a "a no-win situation," Miller managed a greeting to Castro. Trailed by several men carrying large briefcases, Castro crossed the field to be surrounded by the Cuban all-stars, akin to a football coach giving a pep talk. A standing crowd chanted, "Fi-del! Fi-del! Fi-del!" Security forces who brandished sidearms two nights before patrolled the stands without weapons.
The teams took the field with Surhoff carrying the American flag and legendary Cuban third baseman Omar Linares carrying his nation's colors. Pageantry soon gave way to symbolism.
After Castro moved to his seat behind home plate, the respective national anthems played, Cuba's first. The Orioles used their caps to cover their chests during the peppy Cuban anthem; their hosts let their arms drop to their sides during "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Privately, several Orioles had expressed reservations about being used as political pawns for the exhibition. Publicly, they held a company line that politics represented no part of their equation.
During the Orioles' morning news conference, Johnson, a three-year player at the University of Miami who had competed against the Cubans in Havana during the 1991 Pan American Games, said political ramifications "are so far over my head" he dared not speak to them.
Added Surhoff: "History is for others to write and for us to read."
The Orioles nearly collaborated on an embarrassing chapter. For all the talk of treating the exhibition as another Grapefruit League-variety performance, it was clear more was at stake.