The Miami Herald
March 28, 1999

Cuba aglow with spirit of baseball

             Herald Staff Report

             HAVANA -- Sometime this morning, Conrado Marrero will be picked up in a
             government car and driven to Estadio Latinamericano, where he will throw out the
             first pitch in the historic Baltimore Orioles-Cuba game.

             But if he had his way, the 87-year-old Cuban pitching legend said he would skip
             the ceremony and watch the game on the small television set in his Havana home
             with his grandson and great-granddaughter.

             The Cuban government's decision to hand out invitations to the game rather than
             sell tickets is bad for baseball, he said.

             ``It's ridiculous,'' said Marrero, whose slider made him well known in both the
             Cuban leagues and with the Washington Senators from 1950 to 1954.

             ``Before, anyone who wanted to see the game could go, buy a ticket and get in,''
             he said. ``Not this. That place is going to be full of police, not fans.''

             Marrero's frustration with the Cuban government's decision not to sell the usual
             one-peso (about 4 U.S. cents) tickets was shared by many throughout the island,
             where baseball is to fans what soccer is to Brazilians.

             Instead of tickets, fans will need a laminated badge, worn around the neck, to get
             into the noon game. The badges were distributed to labor unions and other
             government-affiliated groups throughout the country.

             A recurring phrase throughout Havana Saturday was: Qué se va a hacer? -- What
             are you going to do?

             ``Qué se va a hacer?'' asked Oneida, 19, a law student who said she had been
             planning on going to the game but has no invitation.

             ``It's good to know people haven't forgotten about Cuba. Who wouldn't want to
             see the Americans play?'' she said. ``But it's too bad the real fans can't get in.''

             One of the lucky ones with a ticket is Donatila Lopez, a grandmother of seven
             who receives a small government stipend to ensure order in the stands near home

             ``This stadium is part of my family,'' said Lopez, who raised her children in the
             shadow of the Latinoamericano. ``And now it, and we, will see history.''

             On Saturday, clusters of uniformed police officers surrounded the stadium.
             Security is expected to be tighter today, especially if President Fidel Castro shows
             up for the game, where more than 50,000 are expected.

             Castro met with Orioles owner Peter Angelos and Major League Baseball
             commissioner Bud Selig on Saturday night at the presidential palace, according to
             Cuban government reports. After a photo session, Castro reportedly carried on
             ``an animated chat'' with his guests.

             Meanwhile, the first of the Orioles -- Scott Erickson, Harold Baines, Scott
             Kamieniecki and Mike Timlin -- arrived in Havana at about 5 p.m. Saturday and
             went straight to a park in the Cubanacan neighborhood to meet with children.

             ``Just signing autographs and giving out smiles,'' said Erickson, the Orioles' starting
             pitcher today.

             The Cuban boys at the park -- who were joined by a group of American Little
             Leaguers who came to Havana on a chartered flight arranged by Angelos -- didn't
             know the Orioles by name, but that didn't stop them from asking for autographs.
             One child got his shirt signed by the four players; another had all four names
             scrawled on a small square of cardboard.

             For all ages, baseball fervor remains strong throughout the island. From La Plaza
             de la Revolucion in Havana to the grass lots of Cojimar, shirtless boys played
             pickup games. Some had actual baseballs and bats. Some played with boards and
             knots of tightly wound tape.

             And in a playoff game between the Havana Industriales and Santiago on Friday
             night, that fervor was in full swing.

             To a packed stadium -- on the same field the Orioles play on today -- the Cuban
             players whipped the ball around the infield not once, but two or three times after a
             strikeout. And at another point, the whole team stormed out of the dugout to argue
             an umpire's call. The sounds of air horns, drums, bells, sirens and chants could be
             heard for miles.

             Alberto, a taxi driver who can name the entire Orioles roster, said regardless of
             who gets to see the game today, Cubans will cheer.

             ``Fidelista or not fidelista, Cubans love baseball,'' he said. ``Either way, that
             stadium is going to be loud.''

             Many fans began celebrating Friday night.

             At the Bodeguita del Medio bar in Old Havana, the talk centered on the Orioles.

             ``Cuba will win,'' one of the customers predicted. ``They'll do it for their country.
             But in Baltimore, I'm not so sure.''

             The Cuba team has been invited to travel to Baltimore to play the Orioles on May

             At the Valermo nightclub, the leader of an eight-piece salsa band took a break
             between sets to ask the crowd who will win today.

             ``Cuba!'' was the boisterous response.

             Herald wire services contributed to this report.