HAVANA -- It may have looked like the Orioles' goodwill trip to Cuba went off without a hitch, but the game still was under a cloud of uncertainty as late as Saturday afternoon.
Orioles consultant Scott Armstrong said yesterday that a dispute over the tickets allotted to the club for distribution to Cuban youth baseball players prompted a veiled threat that the Orioles would refuse to board the charter flight for Havana.
The Orioles originally tried to negotiate an allotment of 5,000 tickets for distribution to the club's entourage and to youth groups in Cuba, but had reduced that demand to 500. The Cuban sports authorities eventually settled on 270 tickets, enough for all of the players who had taken part in the youth baseball exchange with underprivileged children from the Baltimore/Washington area.
Major League Baseball Players Association official Tony Bernazard eventually worked out an agreement, but not without engaging in a minor showdown with Cuban officials.
"Bernazard basically said that the Orioles players would have difficulty coming under those circumstances," Armstrong said. "We had to fight for them [the tickets]."
Bernazard confirmed the dispute, but would not confirm that he had threatened to tell Orioles players to stay home this weekend.
"I really don't know what I said," he said. "I stated that it was very important for us to take care of this issue. There were some difficult moments, but it's fine. You expect to have differences when you organize something like this, but they [Cuban officials] have been very cooperative."
The ticket dispute was indirectly connected to the decision by Cuban officials to distribute tickets to the game through schools, sports organizations and workers groups, but baseball officials claim that the ticket controversy was blown out of proportion.
"There is the perception that the people coming here are controlled," Bernazard said. "It doesn't seem that way to me. There appear to be a lot of women, a lot of young people and a lot of old people. That is my impression so far. They look like common people to me."
Belle puts on a show
Orioles right fielder Albert Belle may not have had a big game, but he was the hit of the pre-game workout, putting on a McGwiresque display in batting practice that clearly awed the large crowd.
Cuban baseball relies much more on speed than power, so the sight of Belle hitting balls well up into the bleachers in left field brought expressions of collective disbelief from the crowd and the largest pre-game ovation for any player on either team.
O's remember Cal Sr.
The Orioles have remembered Cal Ripken Sr. by sewing a No. 7 on the right sleeve of every uniform jersey. Ripken Sr. wore the number as the club's longtime third base coach and manager. Ripken, 63, died last Thursday following an extended battle with lung cancer and is to be buried tomorrow in Aberdeen.
"I think it's only appropriate the organization show some sign to a man who gave so much to this ballclub," said general manager Frank Wren.
Despite owner John Henry's sustained criticism of the trip to Cuba, the Florida Marlins dispatched scouting director Orrin Freeman for yesterday's exhibition. Henry had criticized the Orioles' trip during a protest at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, alleging the trip was wrong because it "transcended" sport and served as a thinly veiled scouting mission.
Henry is mindful of his largely Cuban fan base as well as the concerns of several players of Cuban extraction. Apparently, the Marlins didn't want to lose a chance to watch potential defectors perform against major-league competition.
"There's no question this serves as a great opportunity to watch these [Cuban] players against top-flight competition," Wren said. "That's why so many teams are represented here."
According to Major League Baseball, 24 of 30 major-league franchises were represented.
Haul of Fame
Two representatives from the Baseball Hall of Fame were on hand to secure mementos for a display commemorating the game at the Cooperstown, N.Y., shrine.
Though arrangements remained incomplete, designated hitter Harold Baines may donate the bat he used for the 11th-inning, game-winning single; rookie second baseman Jesse Garcia was approached for the glove that helped stop the Cuban all-stars in the 11th inning; and starting pitcher Scott Erickson may donate his game jersey.
Around the horn
Besides goodwill, the Orioles left behind some practical help for Havana's needy baseball community -- about 85 wooden bats.... The Orioles hope second baseman Delino DeShields will be able to begin taking batting practice later this week. ... Despite being painted three times in the 48 hours leading up to yesterday's exhibition, the field at Estadio Latinoamericano was not major-league quality. "There were some potholes and divots out there," said left fielder B. J. Surhoff, "but there are potholes and divots in Tiger Stadium, too."
Pub Date: 3/29/99