O's show Cubans '99 collapse no fluke

May 04, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

It was long around the top of the fifth inning, when a Cuban umpire attacked the Orioles' B. J. Surhoff on the outfield grass at Camden Yards, that you had to start wondering if this whole thing was really such a good idea.

The Orioles had already made it clear with their pitching, defense and effort that they didn't care about winning the second half of their home-and-home series with the Cuban all-stars.

Then a string of anti-Castro protestors jumped the rail and made a scene on the field.

Now, a Cuban umpire named Cesar Valdez was going after Surhoff -- not exactly the kind of "people-to-people exchange" that Orioles owner Peter Angelos had in mind when he pushed for the history-making series.

Angelos' efforts were noble enough and certainly newsworthy, but the end result wasn't pretty.

The first game in Havana five weeks ago was memorable, but the Orioles' effort was embarrassing in a 12-6 loss in last night's rematch.

Albert Belle, the Orioles' $65 million man, was one Oriole who clearly wanted to be somewhere else. He jogged to first base on one ground ball.

"It was very apparent that they wanted it much more than we did on an individual basis," Orioles manager Ray Miller said after the game. "The enthusiasm they showed, my hats off to [the Cubans]."

Throw that in with the umpiring incident and a string of fans bursting onto the field to make anti-Castro protests, and, well, you can't help wondering if this was worth all the trouble and controversy.

After the last out, recorded almost five hours after the first pitch, you certainly could argue that it was more trouble than it was worth.

None of the Cuban players defected, as some observers had feared, but thousands of the Orioles' fans did, leaving well be fore the end after witnessing the same old Orioles do their last-place thing.

"Obviously, their desire was much better than ours," Miller said.

An hour before the first pitch, a Cuban journalist who had served as an interpreter during pre-game interviews was asked if the Cuban players and fans knew that the Orioles' 1999 season was off to a poor start, to say the least.

"The Cubans are aware of this," said the journalist, Martin Hacthoun, a sportswriter for Prensa Latin, a Havana news agency.

Now the Cubans have seen it for themselves. And like everyone else in the major leagues, they can't believe how bad the Orioles are, either.

"We can win or lose anytime against them," Cuban third baseman Omar Linares said.

The Orioles' starting pitcher, Scott Kamieniecki, threw 53 pitches. Only 16 were strikes. He was on a rehab assignment, in his defense, but he admitted he wasn't into the game mentally, and his lack of command was a perfect metaphor for the Orioles' pitching in 1999.

But Kamieniecki lasted only 1 1/3 innings, and things got far worse after he left. The Orioles were outhit in the end, 18-6, committed three errors and misplayed several other balls. Their pitchers were hammered by a Cuba team that supposedly lacked power.

All you had to do was watch the Orioles running the bases last night, then watch the Cubans do the same. That told you all you needed to know.

The Cubans ran as though last night's game was the most important of their lives. The Orioles ran as if they were annoyed about having to play an exhibition on their day off.

Some of them just took the day off anyway.

Basically, the Cubans wanted desperately to win and the Orioles were too cool to care.

As if a team with seven wins in 24 games didn't need to take advantage of a chance to polish its image on a worldwide stage.

Valdez was the one who made the biggest mistake, losing his cool and picking a fight with a protestor carrying an anti-Castro sign as he streaked across the grass behind second base. The Cuban ump started wrestling with the fan and wound up on the ground as the fans roared.

Police and the other umps raced out to stop the fight, and, recognizing a bad situation, Surhoff and Brady Anderson also came in from their outfield postions to try to help. Valdez seemed to think that Surhoff also was after him, and turned on the Orioles' outfielder.

Valdez had to be peeled off Surhoff and talked out of continuing the fight. He finally cooled down and spoke with Surhoff before the next inning.

It's not as if the night was without some terrific, little moments. A Cuban player standing in the outfield and reaching over the outfield wall to sign autographs for American fans. A Cuban coach hitting pre-game fungoes with a showy snap of his arms. Anderson giving Cuban catcher Ariel Pestano a respectful pat before the first pitch in the bottom of the first.

The Cuban players carrying their flag onto the field after the last out of a game that will become legend in their country.

Then, the players standing at the mound and waving to the remaining fans, many of whom were applauding.

Moments such as that made the night special.

But too many other kinds of moments made it just another embarrassing night for the Orioles.

Pub Date: 5/04/99

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