By Richard Justice
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 1999; Page D01
HAVANA, March 28—The Baltimore Orioles may one day remember
that they were part of a historic afternoon, one in which the often disparate
worlds of sport and politics crowded into the same awkward intersection
for a few unsettling hours. They may one day appreciate the unusual sight
of Cuban President Fidel Castro wedged into a box seat between Orioles
owner Peter Angelos and baseball commissioner Bud Selig for an
afternoon of baseball and small talk.
And the Orioles may one day remember a day that began with the kind of
pomp and ceremony associated with the Olympics, an honor befitting the
first major league team in 40 years to play a game in Cuba.
All of that may come later, because when the Orioles departed this evening
what they probably remembered was how close they came to losing this
afternoon. In the end, they accomplished their stated goal of defeating a
Cuban all-star team, but they needed 3 1/2 hours and 11 innings to squeak
out a 3-2 victory in front of 50,000 at Estadio Latinoamericano.
The Orioles won it in the top of the 11th when designated hitter Harold
Baines lined a single to center that scored Will Clark with the winning run.
It ended a few minutes later when reliever Jesse Orosco got the final three
outs, nailing down a game that Mike Timlin almost let get away in the
"I'm an optimist," Orioles Manager Ray Miller said when asked if he'd
begun to think his team would lose. "I always expect things to work out."
Still, Miller knows this was a victory wrapped inside a thick blanket of
defeat. As Cuban Manager Alfonso Urquiola said: "The main thing is it was
a great show. The show is what the spectators deserved. We feel very
satisfied in that. In baseball, as in life, sometimes you win and sometimes
you lose. Sometimes even the best players lose a game. But we have the
respect of the Orioles."
This was the $82 million Orioles unable to put away a team with a payroll
of around $6,000. This was the 1999 Orioles looking a lot like the 1998
Orioles, a team that didn't have much speed and sometimes didn't have a
lot of enthusiasm, either.
If it wasn't Timlin yielding a game-tying single in the eighth, it was
Belle going hitless in five at-bats, leaving six runners on base, striking out
twice and loafing on a double-play grounder in the eighth.
Belle got two standing ovations during a spectacular display of batting
practice power, but he left his game in the cage, failing to get a ball out of
the infield during the real game. He also complained to the home plate
umpire about a strike call and twice threw his batting helmet in anger.
Belle was one of the reasons the Orioles mustered just four hits in the
10 innings. One of those four hits was a two-run home run by Charles
Johnson, who gave his team a lead it held until the eighth.
Orioles starter Scott Erickson was splendid. After the Cubans ran
themselves into two outs on the base paths in the first inning, Erickson took
charge and gave up just five hits and a run in seven innings. But he was
more than matched by a junk-balling Cuban named Jose Contreras, who
relieved starter Jose Ibar in the third and strung together eight shutout
Relying on a nifty change-up and an assortment of slurves and curves,
Contreras kept the Orioles off balance, striking out 10 and not allowing
anyone to reach third base.
"He mixes speeds very well," Orioles left fielder B.J. Surhoff said. "He
of hid the ball. He throws his breaking ball when he's behind in the count
and has a good split-finger. I think it helped that the wind was blowing in."
Contreras was out of gas by the 11th, and Urquiola brought in his
hard-throwing closer, Pedro Lazo.
"He had thrown his amount of pitches," Urquiola said of his decision to
remove Contreras. "This is what we planned. He was a little tired, and his
speed was not good enough. And Lazo is very good."
Lazo struck out Mike Bordick to open the 11th, but Clark got a bad-hop
double down the right field line and made it to second base. Clark hustled
to third when Belle grounded out, and Surhoff was walked intentionally.
Had the Cubans walked Baines as well, the next scheduled hitter was
light-hitting rookie Jesse Garcia. Instead, Lazo pitched to Baines, who
lined a fastball past the diving shortstop and into center field for the
Miller had gone for the victory in the eighth when he brought in his closer,
Timlin, with two outs and a runner on third base. The Orioles gave Timlin a
four-year, $16 million contract last winter to perform in situations such as
this. But third baseman Omar Linares spoiled Timlin's first meaningful
appearance by grounding a single into left to score Jose Estrada with the
The Cubans almost won it in the 10th when reliever Mike Fetters had
runners at first and second with one out. But he struck out Yobal Duentas
and got Linares on a pop fly to Bordick to end it. After the Orioles scored
in the top of the 11th, Orosco gave up only a one-out single.
"It was a very interesting experience," Erickson said. "It was interesting
see how excited all the people were. These were very good fans, loud and
with a lot of energy."
The Orioles certainly didn't get a full taste of a real Cuban baseball
Because tickets were distributed to selected individuals, the crowd lacked
the bells, whistles, drums and rowdy energy that accompanied Friday and
Saturday's opening games of the Cuban World Series.
The afternoon began with a flag ceremony involving players and coaches
from both teams. Just before the first pitch, Castro visited briefly with the
Orioles and then gave a short pep talk to his own players.
"The history of this event is not for us to judge," Surhoff said. "That's
others to write and us to read. Nobody came here thinking about history.
We came to play a baseball game, and I think you saw a very good one."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company