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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | BILL PLASCHKE

Baseball Ugly for Americans

Lasorda's previously unbeaten team loses its cool and embarrasses itself in 6-1 loss to Cuba.

September 24, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

SYDNEY, Australia — After a week spent wandering the same neighborhood together for the first time, American professional baseball finally ran into the Olympic motto Saturday.

And spit tobacco juice all over it.

A compelling international game was transformed by some dunderheaded Americans into a typical major league game.

Swifter, higher, stronger became whiner, whiner, whiner.

The previously unbeaten U.S. team was not only hammered by the Cubans, but embarrassed by their own sadly typical sense of entitlement and tradition.

With a 6-1 qualifying-round victory, Cuba showed that its baseball league is still one of the world's best.

With shoves, curses, threats, a bench-clearing incident and a cheap-shot body block, the U.S. showed that our baseball leagues are still some of the world's most childish.

If nothing else, the booing and hissing crowd of 14,010 is now a believer.

The final score means little considering these two rivals could meet again this week in the semifinals or championship.

But the game revealed much.

A battle of opposing cultures?

Cuba looked far more developed in the fourth inning when American Ernie Young cleared the benches by shoving the Cuban catcher after he was hit in the shoulder by a pitch from Cuban starter Jose Ibar.

"I think the guy was throwing at him intentionally," U.S. Manager Tom Lasorda said.

One problem. Ibar was throwing a no-hitter at the time.

A battle of different ideologies?

Cuba seemed much more sensible in the bottom of the fourth when, moments after the Young incident, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz dove at the legs of Miguel Caldes as Caldes crossed the bag.

The Cuban soared over the American, landed in a heap, and the game was delayed while he was treated for an apparent leg injury.

"The guy was running inside the base line, my leg was exposed out there, I had to defend myself," said Mientkiewicz.

One problem. Because Sean Burroughs had dropped Caldes' dribbler down the third-base line, there was no play at first base. Mientkiewicz could have just stepped out of the way.

A battle between right and wrong?

There was no question who was wrong in the eighth inning when catcher Pat Borders came out about five feet from home plate to take a throw, and was hit hard by spikes-high-and-sliding Yobal Duenas. It was a tough play, but a fair one.

Borders dropped the ball, Duenas was safe, and Borders jumped up limping and screaming at the Cuban dugout.

"I was mad because I was in pain," said Borders, who rolled his ankle.

One problem. How does that explain the epithets that lip-readers worldwide will be able to translate as insults to the Cubans.

"I don't remember any of that," Borders said with a smile.

This is, of course, why baseball players aren't diplomats.

But at least when the United States brought college baseball players to the Olympics--as in the first two years of the sport's inclusion--they held their tongues and minded their manners.

This year the United States decided to go with pros. But this mixture of aging minor leaguers and young minor league prospects fit in this environment like a black-velvet Elvis painting in the Louvre.

"I'm from the streets also," said Young, referring to the Cubans. "I can play dirty just like them."

Not exactly a quote you would hear anywhere else in the Games.

Certainly, judging from nine tension-filled innings Saturday, the Cuban players are not much fun.

They slide high. They lay down sacrifice bunts in the seventh inning with 5-0 leads. They mockingly wave their gloves and pump their fists after big plays.

Although they reportedly left their best players home for fear of the sort of defections that have threatened their greatness, the Cuban team is still older, savvier and more skilled than any team here.

Even as absurd as the idea of hitting a guy with a 4-0 lead and a no-hitter sounds, the Cubans are certainly not beyond trying to send a message.

"They play very, very hard," Lasorda said. "They compete from start to finish."

And, for sure, Lasorda stoked his team's fire with talk about winning the game for the Cuban exiles in Miami.

He may not have given precisely that speech to his team, but he gave it to the media in the weeks before the game, and they can read.

"He told us this was a game we needed to win," Burroughs said. "He wanted this as much, probably more, than any other game."

None of which excuses things such as walking halfway to the Cuban bench and pointing to your head, as if threatening to hit them there, as American Brent Abernathy did Saturday.

Nor is it appropriate in this environment, without some sort of proof, to blatantly and specifically accuse the Cubans of stealing signs, as Mientkiewicz did.

(Incidentally, as anybody who watched journeyman pitcher Rick Krivda's weak stuff in the first two innings would know, such a theft would be wholly unnecessary.)

"We don't need to play that way," said Cuban Manager Servio Borges, whose team has beaten the Americans 25 times in 28 international games. "We just go out and play baseball and give our best to the game."

To those who understand his country and team's oppressive environment, such a quote would normally sound lame.

The saddest thing about Saturday night is that, when it was finally finished, the Americans came across even more lame.

"It's a shame," Burroughs said. "But sometimes people cross the line."

He was talking about the Cubans.

He should have been talking about his teammates, who need to step back behind that line and figure out why they are representing their country, and quickly, before it becomes apparent that they shouldn't be.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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