More to Cuban game than meets the eye?

With defection fears, talent may be hidden

May 02, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

In the hours after the Orioles scored a suspenseful, one-run victory over a team of Cuban all-stars in Havana five weeks ago, the eight-inning, 10-strikeout performance of Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras was the all the buzz among the large American delegation.

So much so that Orioles broadcaster Fred Manfra brought it up to Cuban leader Fidel Castro during a reception for both teams at the Palacio de la Revolucion.

"You can be very proud of your national team. They played very well today," said Manfra through an interpreter, "and, by the way, can the Orioles sign Contreras?"

Castro initially seemed taken aback by the offhand comment, then smiled and lightheartedly endorsed the proposed deal.

"He deserves it," Castro said.

It was only one exhibition game, of course, but Contreras was so dominating that he over shadowed the rest of the talented Cuban roster. The other Cuban players executed efficiently and pushed the visiting major-league club into extra innings, but it was Contreras who proved that the level of talent in his baseball-crazed island nation still is high enough to attract the attention of both major-league scouts and underground recruiters -- even after the wave of defections that has thinned the baseball talent pool over the past several years.

Contreras was not considered the best pitcher on the staff that held the Orioles to three runs over 11 innings. Jose Ibar, who started the game, was 18-2 with a 2.28 ERA during Cuba's regular season.

Pedro Lazo, who followed Contreras to the mound, was 15-4 with a 2.34 ERA. Both are believed to be higher on the depth chart of the Cuban national team. If that's true, then Cuban concern about the possibility of more defections on the team's three-day trip to Baltimore may not be unfounded.

"We think they've got quality players," said Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Kevin Malone, "but I doubt that we've seen them all. I think some of them are being kept in the background because they are concerned about defections. It's hard to really know.

"We sent our director of international operations, Jack Zduriencik, and he thought the best players weren't on that team."

Some of them definitely were not. The top players for the Havana Industriales and the eventual Cuban league champions from Santiago de Cuba did not participate in the March 28 game because they were still involved in the final round of the playoffs.

Several, including top stars Antonio Skull and Orestes Kinderlain, have been added to the master list of eligible players that will be pared down to a 25-man traveling squad this weekend.

The additional talent should upgrade the offensive lineup, but probably won't change the personality of the Cuban team, which clearly reflects the emphasis on pitching and fundamentals that seems to be indigenous to Cuban baseball.

That emphasis also is apparent among the players who have left Cuba over the past decade to play in the United States. Almost all of the successful Cuban major-leaguers are pitchers -- most notably half-brothers Livan and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and Tampa Bay Devil Rays right-hander Rolando Arrojo. The best-known position player is slick-fielding Mets infielder Rey Ordonez.

"From what I observed, their major strengths are pitching and defense," said Orioles first baseman Will Clark. "They catch the ball and throw it very well. As far as hitting, they are definitely an aluminum bat-type team."

The top offensive star is 31-year-old third baseman Omar Linares, who owns a .371 lifetime batting average and is the reigning career home run leader. He is considered the best player in Cuba -- and clearly has the physical tools to be a quality major-league player -- but he has remained intensely loyal to the Cuban system and never has been considered a threat to defect.

Highly regarded shortstop German Mesa -- who was banned from the national team in 1996 for allegedly conspiring to defect -- also was on the master list of players who may travel to Baltimore today.

There are some physically imposing players in the Cuban league, but the style of play is suited more toward smaller, quicker athletes. For a variety of reasons -- some of them economic -- Cuba is more a country of Chuck Knoblauchs than Albert Belles.

Unfortunately, the first game against the Orioles didn't really showcase the country's top offensive stars. Linares did not stand out in the 11-inning pitching duel.

The day belonged to Contreras, who stifled the Orioles lineup into the late innings and made a lasting impression on both the players who faced him and the dozens of major-league officials in the stands.

"I thought they had a lot of good pitchers," said Orioles catcher Lenny Webster, "but Contreras really stands out in my mind. He's got a good arm, changes speeds. He really looked like he knew how to pitch.

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