Loud cheers for the visiting team

Baseball: Thousands of Hispanics will be in the stands at Camden Yards tonight rooting for the Cubans to beat the hometown Orioles.

May 03, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Manuel Alban is an Orioles fan, a Marylander and an American. He lives in a nice house in Churchville, listens to sports talk radio, and hates Fidel Castro. A native of Ecuador, he has never been to Cuba.

At tonight's Orioles game, he and his 5-year-old grandson will root for the visiting team.

"Absolutely! I will pull for Cuba, no doubt about it, and I will not be alone," says Alban, who publishes a Spanish-language weekly, El Heraldo de Maryland. "It is the fact that Cubans and I are both Latin American. It doesn't mean we don't like the Orioles or that we have animosity for the U.S. In fact, it's the most American thing in the world -- to root for the underdog."

While tonight's game is at Camden Yards, the atmosphere in the stands promises to be more passionate -- and perhaps divided -- than during a typical home game. Thousands of Hispanics from Maryland and across the country have tickets to the game, and the expectation among Hispanic community leaders is that nearly all of them will cheer -- loudly -- for Cuba.

The Orioles have contributed to the phenomenon, giving away 1,000 tickets to local Hispanics, many of whom say they have never been able to afford to see a game at Oriole Park. Other local Hispanics say they snapped up as many of the 4,000 or so tickets available through TicketMaster as they could. When 140 free tickets were handed out Thursday afternoon at the Caribbean Carryout on Eastern Avenue, they disappeared within 20 minutes.

Ticket agencies in New York and Miami reported Hispanic fans buying seats that had been sold by Orioles season-ticket holders. Many families, including Alban's, were expecting to offer couches or spare rooms to out-of-town friends who want to see the game.

The resulting atmosphere may resemble that of an Orioles-Yankee game, when the obnoxious din of New York rooters sometimes drowns out the locals.

"It's a special game, and I think there's going to be some genuine interest from a number of fans hoping to see the Cuban team win," says Joe Foss, the Orioles' chief operating officer. "I don't expect to see 47,000 or 48,000 rooting for the Orioles by any means."

A few local Hispanic say they are inclined to pull for Cuba because of their frustration with the Orioles' poor play and their inability -- for whatever reasons -- to retain Hispanic players like Armando Benitez, Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro. But most say their clapping will be meant as a sign of solidarity with the Cuban players, as individual representatives of Cuba's oppressed people. Says Humbelinda Reyes, a Mexican-American from Catonsville: "Everyone will be Cuban Monday night."

"I would bet that as much as half the stadium will be rooting for the Cubans," says Angelo Solera, who has helped hand out tickets to Hispanics in his role as vice chairman of the mayor's committee on Hispanic affairs.

Support for the Cuban players seems to be one of the few areas of agreement between the the two groups of protesters -- an estimated 1,000 against the game and Fidel Castro, another 1,000 against the U.S. embargo -- who are expected to fill the sidewalks north of Camden Yards. Even leaders of some Miami-based Cuban groups opposed to the game, such as Geraldo Gonzalez Fundora of Cruzada Cubana, say they will root for Cuba.

"At the first place, I am unhappy with the Orioles for having this game," says Miguel Boluda, 68, of Bowie, who fled his native Cuba in 1963 and will be among the anti-Castro protesters today. "And while I am an Oriole fan on the outside, on the inside I wish the Cubans to win. You can't take that blood out of you."

Maryland Hispanic leaders say the game has emerged as something of a coming-out party for Cuban immigrants who live isolated from each other in parts of East Baltimore, Dundalk and Westminster. "There are people coming out of the woodwork who we never heard from before," says Solera. "They're calling us now because they want tickets."

With the 7-17 Orioles at the bottom of the American League, many of these Cubans are confident of their team's chances.

Gerardo Hernandez, 51 and unemployed, came to the United States as part of the Mariel boat lift in 1980. He has been in and out of jail since, lost more jobs than he cares to remember, and says he sometimes doesn't have enough to eat. But he will be at tonight's game.

"I don't want to miss it," he says. "We're going to beat Baltimore."

Pub Date: 5/03/99

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