In Cuba, fans root, root for home team

Havana: The sounds of the game and the cheers of the hometown fans echo throughout the Cuban capital during the rematch with O's.

Cubans At Camden Yards

May 04, 1999|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

HAVANA -- Out on the darkened streets, the familiar sounds spilled from the open windows of houses across the city -- the low buzz of a crowd, echoing in a distant stadium, and over that, the occasional crack of a bat or the announcer's sudden "Steeeeee-rike!"

Last night, so many television sets here were tuned in to the broadcast from Baltimore that it was possible to follow the Cuba-Orioles game even if you had to walk the dog or run down to the corner for more beer.

If it was just another exercise in frustration for Orioles fans in this young, yet already dreary season, it was a great night to be a Cuban baseball fan. Cheers exploded through the night with every run, every strikeout, every bit of derring-do that the Cuban national team unloaded on the Orioles.

Here, after all, watching baseball is an interactive, not a spectator sport.

"Cuba will win!" Luis Garcia, 46, shouted, never mind it was only the top of the first inning. "I am sure!"

Garcia, a chauffeur, had joined a group of friends to watch the game on TV and share a bottle of rum at a cafeteria and bar called, appropriately enough, La Pelota, as Cubans call baseball.

Others, though, were willing to give the Orioles a chance.

"The ball is round, but the box it comes in is square," said Juan Diaz, 49, a chemical engineer, repeating a Zen-like saying that Cubans often invoke when talking about baseball. It roughly translates into, "It's anyone's game."

But news of the woeful Orioles season has reached these shores, even though the state-run media do not cover American baseball.

Tomas Genaro Gonzalez sharply drew in a breath as he tried to phrase it politely:

"They're not one of the strongest teams, are they?" said Gonzalez, 70. "They're not the Yankees."

Ouch.

Gonzalez, a plumber, was taping the game on one television set in his home while occasionally commuting to a TV set in another room that was tuned to Cuba's other consuming passion, a dramatic series called, "Cafi con Aroma de Mujer," which appeared to be about a love triangle at a coffee company.

Gonzalez is a longtime baseball fan who tries to follow American baseball through the occasional foreign periodical. His interest is particularly personal. As a younger man, he played second base for one of the old sugar mill teams, Central Violetta, that once were found throughout Cuba. When he retired, he was replaced by another young man from the neighborhood, Tony Perez, who would go on to star in the major leagues.

Such long memories and such hopes for a return to a time when baseball players passed freely from one country to the other are why last night's game, regardless of the final score, was so important to Cuban fans like Gonzalez.

"It may open the frontiers," he said. "It's a first step."

Seeing Camden Yards was a treat for some fans -- "magnifico" was but one reaction. But these are true fans, not to be distracted or dazzled by the charm and style of a ballpark but rather by the feats on the actual field.

"It doesn't matter the stadium, it's the quality of the players," said Omar Torel, 31, the manager of a bakery. "They have a good stadium in Baltimore, but they are still in last place."

Double ouch.

Earlier yesterday at the "Esquina Caliente," or Hot Corner, at Parque Central, the well-known spot for baseball dish and dissent, fans similarly were concerned about the quality of the Cubans' opponent.

"I would like [Mike] Mussina to pitch," Reynaldo Rodriguez, 34, said of the Orioles' sole winning starter, "but since he pitched [Sunday], he won't pitch this game."

"I don't like that Cal Ripken is injured and he can't play," said Eldridge Chavez, 26, an economics student. "The Orioles have many people injured."

Back at La Pelota, Torel did have one quibble with the Cuban team -- he wished that the player he considers the greatest, shortstop German Mesa, had been selected for the team. Though some say Mesa was kept off the team because he had a poor season batting, others believe it was because he had previously been suspected of plotting to defect and thus was considered too risky to allow out of the country.

"It's political," said Diaz, the engineer. "It would not be the Cuban people's selection."

Still, he added, the most important thing is not the individual players or even the final score.

"It is that the game was played," he said.

Pub Date: 5/04/99

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