Cuba's `B' team shows poverty and passion

Replacements lack national team's polish

July 10, 1999|By John Miller | John Miller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands -- Lionel Doris, a tall, husky Cuban right-hander, stood outside Rotterdam's Familiestadion last Tuesday night and nodded at the interpreter's English.

"He wants to know if you'll buy his shirt for $20," said Aad Michielsen, the team's unofficial guide and interpreter. "These guys have nothing, absolutely nothing."

Doris' team wound up second to the Netherlands in the World Port Tournament, an amateur competition that ended Sunday. His team better represents Cuban baseball and Cuban life than the star-studded squad that split with the Orioles -- losing in March in Havana and winning May 3 at Camden Yards.

Unlike that "dream team," the Cubans who played in Rotterdam were not polished. Only one player on the 23-man roster, third baseman Rafael Orlando Acebey, had international experience. Most had never left Cuba. They ranged from Roberto Rosell -- a 36-year-old, chain-smoking left fielder who led the tournament in hits -- to the team's only prospect, Yohan Carlos Pedroso -- a hulking, 19-year-old, power-hitting first baseman with dreams of playing in the United States. For the tournament, Pedroso hit two homers and three doubles in 29 at-bats. "He should be on the A team in two years," said a Cuban coach.

The rest were run-of-the-mill Cuban players. Unlike superstars Omar Linares and Orestes Kindelan, they have never been offered a penny to play professionally in the Unit ed States. They receive no salary, only living expenses from the government.

They were last-minute replacements. Shortly before the World Port Tournament was to begin, organizers thought they were losing the Cuban team, one of their top draws.

"Three weeks ago, an order came from the highest authority that the top 100 players would have to attend a special training camp to prepare for the Pan Am Games," said Gerard Vandraager, chief organizer of the tournament. "Castro is very nervous."

The Pan Am Games, July 23 to Aug. 8 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, are expected to be a tough challenge for the Cubans, who will face professionals in international competition for the first time. On July 28, Cuba will face the United States, a team that includes Orioles pitching prospect Matt Riley.

With the best Cuban players unavailable, Dutch organizers petitioned Cuban officials for a replacement team. Dutch Royal Airlines (KLM) offered to fly the team over. Eager to maintain good relations in the amateur baseball world, the Cuban baseball federation patched together this team.

"I wanted to play the real Cubans," said Dutch shortstop Robert Eenhorn. "But on the field, it's just baseball."

Off the field, it wasn't just baseball.

"These guys have never been out of the country. They're not educated like the stars," said Michielsen. "They're not sure how to handle themselves. They're thinking about taking care of their families."

After every game, the Cubans stood outside the stadium talking to admirers. Most wanted to sell old uniforms and equipment.

"Just don't show the coach," said one player, as he led a fan to the locker room to conduct an exchange.

These Cubans may be poor and provincial, but they are good.

The World Port Tournament is a week-long affair, with the two top finishers playing a best-of-three Gold Medal Series. The contrast between the two finalists, Cuba and the Netherlands, was startling. The Dutch, with eight former pros and two ex-major-leaguers, are the class of European baseball. Warming up in new windbreakers, they looked like professionals.

The Cubans arrived carrying much of their equipment in white plastic bags. They wore faded red pinstripes and flimsy mesh caps. Forty-five minutes before the first pitch, Jorge Tisert, Cuba's stellar closer, was checking out gloves at the souvenir stand. The game's starting pitcher, Gervasio Miguel, was bugging a Dutch television crew to show him how to work the third-base camera.

"Most of these guys won't ever come back to Europe," said Michielsen. "This was their only shot."

Michielsen, a 57-year-old Dutch executive with an international coffee company, befriended Linares and other Cuban stars during the 1997 World Port Tournament. "It was raining and I had drinks in my car for all those guys, and we went to the hotel and just talked. They're great guys. These guys all hate Castro -- Omar hates Castro -- but they love Cuba.

"They're very, very proud of their country. That's why they can't leave. The game against the Orioles was very good for Cuban baseball and very bad for Castro, because it showed that the Cubans are great people and they love baseball more than they love the system."

Last week, Michielsen coordinated an effort to collect clothes and money for the Cubans to take home. "I try to give these guys something because they have nothing. I've been to Omar Linares' house. You know, Omar doesn't hate Americans. He'd take the money in the States if he could take his family with him. It's all about family. You can't replace your family."

Pub Date: 7/10/99

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