OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Baseball: Pitched into ideological warfare: Richard Williams witnesses a contest of contrasts under the guise of a baseball game

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The Independent Online
IT IS A strange evening, the air thick and slow, the light gold and grey, a mist hanging on the hills behind the city. We are in the new Estadio de Beisbol at L'Hospitalet, a workers' suburb of Barcelona, all 15-storey rectangular apartment blocks and untended open spaces. The Cubans must feel at home. To the Americans, their opponents on this night in the Olympic semi-final, it might as well be Mars.

Down on the field, a dozen Cuban players are warming up inside the diamond. The ball hisses through the air in a perfectly flat trajectory before it slaps viciously into the receiver's leather mitt. Hiss-slap. Hiss-slap. Hiss-slap. There is more than a hint of arrogance in the Cubans' display as the white ball draws lines in the thick, hot, grey-gold air.

These Cubans are mature men, unbeaten in more than 70 international matches. They are world champions and Pan-American champions, and would probably be present Olympic champions had it not been for the political boycotts of 1984 and '88. Thirty- odd years ago, before Fidel Castro's revolution, their best players - men like Antonio Pacheco, Victor Mesa and Omar Ajete - would have made fortunes in the American major leagues.

No wonder that, watching from the right-field bullpen, the US players seem uneasy. The bright brown eyes of Michael Tucker, a 21-year-old left-handed batter from Chase City, Virginia, are turned inwards as he sits on the bench, watching the Cubans. He is a study in apprehension.

The pressure on the US team, whose predecessors won the gold medal in Seoul, when it was a demonstration sport, is intense. They are supposed to be the flower of the coming generation, the cream of the college elite, already drafted to major league clubs, just awaiting the end of the Games to put their signatures to some of the best apprenticeship contracts in world sport. Some of them will become rich beyond the dreams of their fellow Americans, never mind those of any citizen of Castro's Cuba.

Just now, though, the Cubans are the test of their quality. And not only of that: any meeting of Cuba and the US becomes a contest between ideologies and ways of life. In these events, everything becomes a potential metaphor. Just watch the two teams shaking hands. The Cubans are giving each American a pennant. The Americans give nothing.

Cuba's starting pitcher, Osvaldo Fernandez, is a ringer for the chap who played Marlon Brando's sidekick in Viva Zapata. Tall, dark, his left shoulder raised high, right hand pouching the ball in the mitt as he holds the batter's eyes, he projects an insistent machismo.

The first hour passes without a score, but in the fourth inning Orestes Kindelan clouts a pitch from Ricky Helling over the left- field wall for a bases-empty home run: 1-0. Victor Mesa follows up in the fifth by sending in Ermedilio Urrutia. Briefly, things improve for the US when Chad McDonnell drives through centre-field to pull his team back to 2-1, but Michael Tucker, his nerves shot, is caught out with the bases loaded.

That is enough to make the Cubans turn up the volume. Fernandez is replaced by Omar Ajete, a 27-year-old builder from Pinar del Rio who was nominated for the all-star team at the end of the 1990 World Championships. Ajete, who looks as though he has been drafted in from the Cuban wrestling team, shrugs his wide shoulders and, with bases loaded, winds up three 90mph balls to strike out Phil Nevin, a blond 21-year-old from Cal-State who will begin his pro career with the Houston Astros next season. Then Victor Mesa smashes the ball into the wall to put himself and Lourdes Gurriel in for a two-run homer.

In the middle of the seventh inning, the US fans among the 7,000 crowd keep their spirits up by singing 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game'. In the press stand, the American reporters are watching the 'dream team' humiliating Puerto Rico on television. On the pitch, not even two changes of pitcher can stop the match dribbling away. Victor Mesa's swat to centre-field puts two more men in for a 6-1 lead, and now the Cubans know they are on their way to meet Taiwan in the final.

After the match the Cuban coach, Jorge Fuentes, says that, yes, he would like to see what would happen if his men got a chance to play against a major league team. Ron Fraser, his opposite number, admits that the only way his college boys could have won would have been to catch the Cubans 'on a real off day'. Asked about Ajete, Phil Nevin shakes his head and says he has never faced anybody like that before - 'and I hope I don't have to again'.

There do not seem to be any lessons here, except that age and experience will sometimes beat youth and enthusiasm. As ideological warfare goes, it was a pretty good ball game.

CUBA took the gold medal with an 11-1 victory over Taiwan in the final of the baseball competition last night. Japan claimed the bronze by inflicting an 8-3 defeat on the United States.