U.S. victory in baseball marks end of Cuba's reign

September 28, 2000|By John Eisenberg

SYDNEY, Australia - You can't make it into a baseball version of hockey's "Miracle on Ice," when a team of American collegians beat professional Soviet stars in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

This wasn't nearly that unlikely. Not when Cuba also lost to that noted baseball power, the Netherlands, earlier in the tournament. Not when the Cubans were using, as U.S. manager Tom Lasorda said, "a bunch of guys who were 33, 35, 36 years old."

No, it wasn't an imposing, dominating Cuban machine that the United States beat last night to win the Olympic gold medal in baseball for the first time. It was a dynasty on its last legs, diminished by defections and wooden bats, compromised by age - a team that split a pair of games with the lamentable 1999 Orioles, if you recall, when the Orioles weren't even trying.

But still, it was Cuba, the lords of international baseball, guileful and talented and hardly an easy touch, and, putting it simply, a U.S. team of minor-leaguers stuffed them with a gold medal on the line.

That's pretty good.

In front of a packed house of uncomprehending Australian fans, the United States stuffed the Cubans completely and resoundingly, limiting them to three hits, making them look overmatched, sticking them with a loss that put silver medals around their necks for once, a sight they could barely stand.

That's more than pretty good. That's maybe even really good.

Cuba was 4-0 against the United States in Olympic games before last night, the record including a 6-3 win in a round-robin game last weekend. The combined score of the four wins? Would you believe 31-16?

"Nobody thought we could beat them tonight," Lasorda crowed. "There isn't anyone out there that thought that we could do it after they beat us in that first game."

But that night, Lasorda started Orioles farmhand Rick Krivda, a 30-year-old who has spent most of his career in the minors. Krivda gave up four runs in the first inning, and Cuba rolled.

Last night, Lasorda started Ben Sheets, a 22-year-old destined for the Brewers' starting rotation.

Big difference.

Resembling what U.S. catcher Pat Borders called "a right-handed David Wells," Sheets mixed fastballs and off-speed pitches with devastating results. The Cubans just waved at most of what he threw.

"He threw a beautiful game, and that was the difference," said Cuban manager Servio Borges, who spoke with reporters for 20 minutes after the game and was gracious in defeat.

Not that he wanted to concede the obvious, that the loss signaled the end of one of the great dynasties, the end of Cuba's domination of international baseball.

"I don't see it that way," Borges said. "It isn't the end of Cuban baseball [dominating]. It's the beginning of a new era."

Yet Cuba will never again rule as it did, for a variety of reasons. There's the now-steady stream of defections, for instance. Not only have they robbed the national team of such players as Orlando Hernandez and Livan Hernandez, but they also have dissuaded Cuban officials from bringing their best, young players to major competitions, fearing late-night flights to freedom.

Cuba just can't afford to put its best team on the field anymore.

Similarly harmful was a 1999 rule change dictated by international baseball's ruling body, a switch from aluminum to wooden bats.

Cuban stars such as third baseman Omar Linares had made the most of those power-enhancing metal bats for years.

"I played against Linares with an aluminum bat, and he was the best I've ever seen," U.S. second baseman Doug Mietkiewicz said.

Linares, 33, managed two of Cuba's three hits off Sheets last night, but he was hardly intimidating.

And Cuba will never play another U.S. national team composed of collegians, thanks to a rule change allowing pros into the Olympics and other major competitions.

As easy as it was to have a laugh at the expense of the many career minor-leaguers who made up Lasorda's team, they were pros who knew how to play - a much tougher crew than a bunch of 20-year-olds.

Lasorda said the minor-leaguers could win the World Series within a few years if they stayed together, typical bluster from the 73-year-old Hall of Famer who turned the Olympics into a lounge act.

"If you don't love this team, you don't love Christmas," he said for the 634th time since the opening ceremony 13 days ago.

He was particularly over the top after this game, stopping just short of comparing the U.S. team to Vince Lombardi's Packers and the win to John Wayne's last stand in "True Grit."

"Our guys just wanted it more," Lasorda said. "And this is bigger than winning the World Series."

As he spoke, the Cuban players stood silently in a corridor outside the press room, waiting to leave.

Losing looked like a new suit of clothes that didn't fit.

"Is this an upset?" a reporter asked Borges, the manager.

It wasn't clear.

"We aren't demoralized or feeling sick," he said. "We lost the game.

"That happens in baseball."

Next question: "Your great team is the reason that the U.S. now uses pros in the Olympics. How will Cuba respond to the challenge?"

Borges paused.

"Hard work, leading to better technique," he said, and then he smiled. "And I'm sure the journalists who are here will talk to us and tell us how to do it."

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