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Atlanta 1996 Olympics

The Countdown: 26 Days to the Games : Cuba's Hottest Topic : As Usual, It's Baseball, as in, Why Are They Tinkering With the Olympic Team?

June 23, 1996|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's barely 10 a.m., but already a blistering sun has turned Havana's Parque Central into a sauna. While more prudent Cubans quickly seek refuge in the Hotel Inglaterra, the 160-year-old Garcia Lorca theater or other nearby buildings, a group of 70 or 80 men gathers beneath the white marble gaze of independence leader Jose Marti, challenging both the weather and convention to openly discuss the pressing issues of the day.

For the past two years a frequent topic of debate at la esquina caliente--or the hot corner, a name drawn from the fervor of the conversation, not the heat of the sun--has been the declining quality of Cuban leadership.

"Why, in the old days," the men bitterly complain, "the U.S. couldn't have pushed us around the way they've done lately."

"The guy in charge," someone will eventually surmise, "just hasn't got it anymore."

The target of the criticism is not President Fidel Castro; after all, he's only a politician. Instead, the men who gather on the park benches and beneath the tropical trees in Old Havana take aim at someone who is arguably more important to average Cubans--Jorge Fuentes, manager of the country's national baseball team.

In his 10th season with la seleccion nacional, Fuentes, 46, has lost only one tournament game--to the United States in the first round of the Pan American Games in 1987, his first year as manager. Since then, he has guided Cuba to 134 consecutive victories in international play, winning five Intercontinental Cups, three Pan Am titles, three world championships and one Olympic gold medal in the process. Such success has spoiled Cuban fans, however, and winning is no longer enough; now Fuentes' team must dominate the competition. In winning the 1994 world championship in Nicaragua, for example, Cuba steamrollered its opposition by an average score of 12-1, yet Cuban sportswriters said their offices were besieged with calls from fans upset by the team's play.

"I think sometimes the coaches are under more pressure than the players," says Gus Dominguez, a Havana-born player representative who has helped nearly a dozen Cuban defectors sign professional baseball contracts in the past four years. "I feel for them because they have to win. In Cuba, you have to have a winning game or you don't get to coach the next one."

That fate nearly befell Fuentes last summer when Team USA swept a four-game series from Cuba in Millington, Tenn. Because the series was not part of an international tournament, Fuentes' eight-year winning streak remained intact. Yet that was small consolation to the man who had just become the first Cuban manager to lose a series of any kind in four decades.

As a result of that performance--as well as lackluster efforts in August's Olympic qualifying tournament in Edmonton and the Intercontinental Cup in Havana last fall--the Cubans spent the last eight months rebuilding their Big Red Machine. No less than eight of the 22 players on the Olympic squad have been added to the national team since last summer, a remarkably quick makeover for a program that prefers to operate in four-year cycles.

Among the missing is colorful outfielder Victor Mesa, 36, a 15-year veteran of the national team; designated hitter Lourdes Gurriel, 39, a 17-year veteran and the most valuable player in the last world championships; right-handed pitcher Orlando "Duke" Hernandez; shortstop German Mesa; and first baseman Luis Toca.

The dismissals of Victor Mesa and Gurriel were no surprise; both had planned to leave the national team after the Atlanta Games anyway, so last season's collapse simply accelerated that schedule. But politics--as it so often does in Cuba--may have influenced the unexpected decision to cut the other three.

Hernandez, 29, a six-year veteran, was the No. 2 starter on an otherwise inexperienced staff. But he is also the brother of Livan Hernandez, who defected from the Cuban national team last September to sign a $4.5-million contract with the Florida Marlins. Although the Cubans say Hernandez hurt his elbow and is unable to pitch, there is widespread speculation he was left home because officials feared another defection.

Similar fears were also raised about German Mesa, 29, and Toca, 25, although their absence from the national team was officially blamed on poor performances in Cuba's national tournament last winter.

Mesa, perhaps the top amateur player at his position in the world, will certainly be missed in Atlanta. A clutch hitter with surprising power, he's such a smooth fielder that New York Met shortstop Rey Ordonez, believing he would never replace Mesa on Cuba's national team, chose to defect three years ago rather than languish as a backup. His spot in Atlanta will be taken by Eduardo Paret, 23, who is already being touted as Cuba's next superstar. Toca's spot will be filled by veteran Orestes Kindelan.

Not surprisingly, the demotions have drawn criticism at home.

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