In Cuba, players receive a hero's welcome

Castro, thousands of fans cheer the victors after historic win in Baltimore

May 05, 1999|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HAVANA -- The victorious Cuban team, fresh from beating the Baltimore Orioles, was welcomed home yesterday morning with a huge rally attended by thousands of deliriously happy fans and punctuated by a speech by Fidel Castro that, despite threatening to go on as long as the rain-delayed game itself, failed to mention that at least one member of the delegation apparently defected in Baltimore.

In fact, the Cuban leader drew the biggest cheers during his sometimes strident, often tedious three-hour speech when he lauded the baseball players who returned home despite the potential millions of dollars dangled in front of them.

"They offered [Omar] Linares $40 million to stay" -- a figure that could not be confirmed, Castro said disdainfully as the crowd roared and the star player stood nearby with the other members of the delegation to Baltimore. "These are athletes who don't sell out. This is what I want to recognize them for."

He said Americans "go around the world buying athletes. They go around buying scientists and artists. We have to fight against these attempts to buy off our athletes."

He acknowledged, however, how little Cuban athletes are paid, especially compared with the millions that major-league baseball players make in the United States, and drew more applause by promising he would try to improve their salaries.

But he added, "The flag cannot be sold. The homeland cannot be sold. And the glory of these athletes is that they cannot be sold."

Castro cast the win over the hapless Orioles, one of the major leagues' worst teams this season, as one over all U.S. sport.

"Cuba is the only country in this hemisphere that can play with the United States in all the sports," he said. "Many days before the game, all the seats were already sold because many Americans wanted to see the Cubans play."

The rally culminated a celebration that began even before the marathon game ended. A Fourth of July-level fireworks display erupted over the waterfront shortly before midnight. On the ground, the city similarly erupted in glee: People ran through the streets in celebration, and still-open businesses, including a downtown gas station, turned their radios up full blast.

By 7 a.m., megaphone-equipped cars driving through neighborhoods and the state-run news media were encouraging all to turn out for their returning champions.

Castro stood on the tarmac and hugged each of the players as they emerged from their overnight flight, proudly holding a Cuban flag.

Castro answered a few questions from the press -- a rare event -- and made a point to laud Baltimore, the city that brought its team here March 28 and this week received the Cuban delegation. He said he was "grateful to the people of Baltimore and all the players and the staff of the team."

People lined the roads to wave to the players as they rode in convertibles from the airport to the rally, held outdoors on the campus of the University of Havana. Thousands crowded the long, wide stairs that rise from the main entrance to the campus, where the speakers stood, and spilled out into surrounding streets, which had been closed to traffic.

The crowd waved Cuban flags, homemade signs praising the players and various patriotic banners. Many were schoolchildren. Others in the throng pounded drums and started cheers.

"In the morning, when I was still asleep, many professors called out, `Quick, quick, we're going to receive the players,' " said Lissette Herrera, 17, a student at a college prep school who had stayed up late watching the game and attended the rally. "We all hurried to the buses."

The day was part Mardi Gras, part impromptu national holiday -- a political rally as mosh pit -- as the sweltering crowd pressed forward for a better view. Some said they'd never seen such a big rally for returning athletes, even those who had won gold medals at the Olympics.

But this contest, even against a lackluster team such as the Orioles, was not just another baseball game.

"Everybody is watching us all over the world," said student Nelvy Pina, 17. "I feel proud."

Castro also took the opportunity to decry a recent ruling that allowed the Bacardi Corp. to use the name "Havana Club," that of a famous rum made here.

"Bacardi gets Havana Club rum, so no one should be mad if we start making Coca-Cola and selling it all over the world," Castro said.

As the speech wore on -- and on and on -- people started leaving, or at least shifting to follow the precious bits of shade that shifted with the sun. Castro, legendary for his speechmaking stamina if not for his style, and perhaps realizing that the crowd was starting to doze off in the noontime sun, encouraged some feedback.

"Why," he asked those who had brought the gear they normally bring to the ballpark, "don't you blow your horns?"

Pub Date: 5/05/99

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