ATLANTA — Other than the blazing red script Cuba across his chest, Jorge Fuentes seems a lot like a major league manager. He can be calculating, stern, and a moment later he's swapping stories by the dugout, talking about how Tom Lasorda seems like his kind of manager.
He can spread the manure a bit too, speaking rapid Spanish as he weaves the same words through his conversation again and again. "We are only a small island nation of 11 million people."
A small island nation, but one that has dominated international baseball with a team of professional-caliber players, a team of grown men who might be major leaguers if they could leave their small island nation to play. (In a blow to Cuba's hopes of winning a second consecutive gold medal, its top pitcher, Rolando Arrojo, did just that before the Olympics, defecting to the United States.)
The United States and Cuba have a much-anticipated showdown today, a possible preview of the gold-medal game Friday.
Today's game has no effect on the next round because the United States and Cuba have swept into the showdown unbeaten. No matter the outcome, they will finish first and second--or vice versa--after preliminary play, meaning they will face other teams in the semifinals.
U.S. Coach Skip Bertman plans to start right-hander Billy Koch, saving staff aces Kris Benson, the No. 1 pick in the major league draft last month, and Seth Greisinger for the medal round. As Bertman puts it, you have to beat the Cubans only once to win the gold, so you don't give them a look at your best pitcher when it doesn't matter.
Cuba seems vulnerable, with Arrojo gone and injuries hampering the team during the Olympic tournament. A sprained ankle sustained by left fielder Luis Ulacia and a hamstring pull suffered by right fielder Ray Isaac forced Fuentes to use third baseman Omar Linares in one game, and Linares--who has said he would rather play for 11 million people than $11 million--expressed his discomfort with the unfamiliar position.
The Cubans have scored at least 14 runs in three of their five games, and designated hitter Orestes Kindelan hit one home run measured at 521 feet. But the pitching has been middle-of-the-pack, and Cuba had to rally in extra innings to beat Japan, 8-7--a team the United States beat, 15-5, hitting seven home runs, a record five in the first inning.
Bertman has never let up in his praise of the Cubans, positioning the Americans as tremendous underdogs despite some success against Cuba in exhibitions.
"They aren't always motivated for those," Bertman said. "Now to win the gold, one cannot underestimate the value they place on the Olympics. In 1963, with the embargo, we fixed it so they had no groceries or electricity. They put a high priority on this.
"The point is the government puts the pressure on them. People say 'Pressure?' Nobody knows what the hell I mean. But if we lose, it's not like I don't have a refrigerator anymore or have to stand in line for groceries. I don't feel pressure. Ask Jorge Fuentes about pressure. When they lost to us last year, the game was being piped in as entertainment, paid for by the Cubans. Then we beat them, and beat them again, and I saw Jorge Fuentes doing an interview in Espanol. I don't speak the language, but you could see the pressure on that guy. No one's going to shut my electricity off if I fail."
Infielder Troy Glaus from UCLA sees it in different terms.
"It's not politics. I don't think anybody cares," Glaus said. "We just play. It's the fact that it's our national pastime, but they beat us in the Olympics."
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BASEBALL / Matching Rivals
The challenge for the U.S. team when it plays Cuba in baseball today is that all of its players--except for two 19-year-olds who will turn 20 next month--are in their early 20's. Some of the Cubans are in their 30's. Cuba won the gold medal the only time it entered the Olympic tournament in 1992. The U.S. won in 1988, but Cuba boycotted those Games. A look at the key players and probable starting lineups for todays game:
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
Center: Juan Manrique
First Base: Lazaro Vargas
Second Base: Antonio Pacheco
Shortstop: Eduardo Paret
Third Base: Omar Linares
Left Field: Miguel Caldes
Center Field: Jose Estrada
Right Field: Luis Ulacia
Designated Hitter: Orestes Kindelan
Pitcher: Ernesto Guevara
Center: A.J. Hinch
First Base: Travis Lee
Second Base: Warren Morris
Shortstop: Jason Williams
Third Base: Troy Glaus
Left Field: Mark Kotsay
Center Field: Jacque Jones
Right Field: Chad Allen
Designated Hitter: Matt LeCroy
Pitcher: Billy Koch
Source: Times staff