Cuban cheer as they beat US at their own game

Political tensions made victory even sweeter.
Atlanta - It is hard to remember that they were once friends. That they traded pleasure and goodwill along with cigars and sugar. Forty years of hate, of glowering at each other across 90 miles of water, have wiped the smiles away.

The Cubans do not dislike the United States, the word is too shallow for antipathy that is nurtured in the cradle. Their very being seems to be aimed at putting one over on the not-so-benign Uncle Sam. You know the joy when they defeat the Americans at their own game. In their own backyard.

No matter that the baseball match at Atlanta, Fulton, County Stadium, was, in the context of the Olympic Games, meaningless. Both teams had already qualified for the medal round, but it meant something in Havana, which has had to suffer nightly blackouts to conserve energy stocks denied by the US blockade of goods.

"I expect there to be a great party in Havana tonight," Jorge Fuentes, the Cuban coach, said after his team's 10-8 victory. Did the political tensions add to the sweetness of the victory? "Absolutely," he replied.

Not that the result was exactly unexpected. It might seem daft to say it, but the United States is not that good at baseball. Sure, the major league players would be about as stoppable and pliable as a train, but at Olympic level, as one American reporter said: "We suck."

The problem, as it usually is in the land of the free, comes down to ties. Economic ones. To create a "dream team" of sluggers and pitchers would mean taking them from the National and American Leagues, and in a sport where a $1m contract is considered very small Budweiser, the clubs would not let it happen. Unless baseball becomes part of the winter Olympics and does not clash with the American season, the pros simply cannot make it.

So it is Cuba, not the US, which struts at amateur level. Fidel Castro (once a pretty good baseball pitcher himself) has not let his athletes play professionally for 30 years, and with players good enough to make it in the majors, their record since 1987 is frightening. Played 94, won 93, is about as close to perfection as you can get.

As a consequence, in the home of the Braves, Atlanta's professional team, the Americans played the meek, holding back their main pitchers so that Cubans will not have worked them out, should they meet in Friday's final. The stadium, just a few empty seats short of its 52,000 capacity, bayed: "US, US", but the bravado was in the stands, not in the home coaches' minds, who were intent on damage limitation against the side known as Equipo de Sueno in Cuba. You guessed it, the translation is Dream Team.

Billy Kock was the American pitcher thrown into this particular nightmare. He is an erratic thrower who could be likened to the England fast bowler, Devon Malcolm, sometimes on the plate, at other times searching for the table. On this occasion, he was spot on, and was dispatched for two home runs by Luis Ulacia and Omar Linares - a batter so good that the New York Yankees offered him $1.5m to defect last year.

The American were 4-0 down after an innings. "Watch it," one American journalist warned. "The Cuban pitcher will throw the first pitch at the first batter. They do it every game." Sure enough, he did, Omar Luis drilling into Jason Williams. Later, he did it again. Intimidating. Making a point. At 10-2 up, the Cubans could afford to relax and, although the Americans caught up later, a psychological blow had landed.

The lasting effects could be seen in the final."They have this great confidence to the point of arrogance," Skip Bertman, the American coach, said of the Cubans. "They didn't jump up and down at the end. They expect to win every single ball game." Make the game politics and the Cubans would say that about the Americans.