Cubans rate jabs over KO punch

Unlike slugging U.S., focus is speed, defense

May 03, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The first game of the international exhibition series between the Orioles and a Cuban all-star team was such a tight, well-pitched battle that fans -- both at Havana's Latin American Stadium and watching from afar on television -- didn't get to see the clear stylistic differences between the two teams.

Maybe it was the soft Cuban baseball. Maybe it was the hard-throwing pitchers who took the mound one after another for both teams. But the game reflected more the small-ball, speed-oriented style of play that the Cuban players use in their National Series (regular season).

The Orioles, representing an American version of the game that depends heavily on the home run, hit just one ball over the fence during the 11-inning, 3-2 victory on March 28.

Hold the one-liners. The Orioles were in the final week of spring training and still were playing well enough to keep anyone from suspecting what was to happen to them during the first four weeks of the regular season. They simply ran into some excellent pitching -- particularly from 27-year-old right-hander Jose Contreras -- and never really mounted a typical American League offensive attack.

Things may be different when the Orioles play host to the second game of the goodwill series tonight at Camden Yards.

"It's tough to see much in a one-game situation," Orioles coach Sam Perlozzo said. "We'll get a better read after this one. It is in our park. The distractions will be on their side. We were still in spring training. That should make a difference, and I presume they have been playing together for a while."

The Cuban team should have more offensive potential if the roster for tonight's game includes some of the star-quality players that had to miss the first game because they were participating in post season play. That, however, will not change their basic approach to the game, which depends heavily on good pitching and defense.

In the nearly 40 years since Fidel Castro built a socialist wall around Cuban baseball, the game has grown away from the American version.

The position players, it seems, have gotten smaller and quicker. The top pitchers throw hard, but the emphasis on bunting and bat control in the Cuban major league has forced them to concentrate more on the finer art of pitching.

"It reminds me of the Galapagos Islands," said former Orioles pitcher and coach Mike Flanagan, "where everything just evolved a little differently."

Of course, the quality of Cuban baseball in 1999 has been affected by the decade-long exodus of quality players who have escaped the island to seek fame and fortune in the American major leagues. Orioles outfielder B. J. Surhoff, who played against the Cuban national team as an amateur in 1983, said that the character of the Cuban lineup that faced the Orioles in March was very different from the one that he played against 16 years ago.

"That was totally opposite to the way they played in the international tournaments," Surhoff said. "They were all bangers. Go back and look at the box scores of the games they played. They scored a lot of runs.

"I don't know how much the wood bats had to do with it or the softer ball, but I wouldn't have thought that they would change their style of play that quickly."

Surhoff remembers the players he faced in 1983 as being "more physically mature" than the American college players because many of them were in their late 20s and early 30s.

Of course, that was before so many U.S. collegiate players became obsessed with weightlifting and bodybuilding.

The Orioles appeared to be bigger and bulkier when they lined up next to the Cuban team during pre-game ceremonies at Latin American Stadium, perhaps because of the greater emphasis on muscle mass.

But Surhoff, who led the Orioles' procession, did not think that the size difference was significant.

"I didn't see any real size difference," he said. "I think they had some pretty good-sized guys. I didn't think we were that much bigger. But [in 1983] everybody from one through nine was up there whaling. They had some big, strong guys."

Now, most of the biggest, strongest Cuban players are pitching. Contreras, who shut out the Orioles for eight innings and struck out 10, is 6 feet 3 and 224 pounds. Jose Ibar, who started the March 28 game, is 6-1 and 229 pounds.

"Obviously, they can pitch," said Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten, who was one of many major-league officials who traveled to Havana for the first game, "but they [the hitters] don't appear to have a great deal of power."

The real difference may have been in the way that the Cubans chose to approach what was expected to be a vastly superior Orioles team. They played for one run at a time and used their strong pitching and speed on defense to neutralize the visitors' attack.

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