April 28, 1999
Castro at U.S.-bound Cuban baseball team training

                  HAVANA (Reuters) -- Cuba's baseball-loving President Fidel Castro has
                  been personally encouraging a national team training in secret for Monday's
                  milestone game against a Major League team on U.S. soil.

                  "The presence of the commander-in-chief in these (practice) games is very
                  stimulating," Cuba's national baseball director Carlos Rodriguez told local
                  radio late Tuesday.

                  His comments confirmed rumors in Havana that Castro has been attending
                  on a near-daily basis the team's practice sessions behind closed doors at the
                  Latinoamericano stadium.

                  Security has been tight around the stadium, and sports sources said Castro
                  was involving himself in all aspects of the team's tactical and logistical
                  preparations for the second game of an unprecedented series against the
                  Baltimore Orioles.

                  Cuba's sports authorities assembled three weeks' ago 48 of the island's top
                  players at the stadium, from which a team of 25 will be picked for the game
                  on Monday in Baltimore's Camden Yards stadium.

                  The Orioles, who finished next to last in the American League East division
                  last year, narrowly beat Cuba in the first game 3-2 in 11 innings at a packed
                  Latinoamericano stadium on March 28, and the Cubans are out for revenge
                  when they travel to Baltimore.

                  The 72-year-old veteran revolutionary is, like most Cubans, a keen baseball
                  fan, and was a pitcher in a team of ex-rebels, known as "Los Barbudos"
                  (The Bearded Ones), in the 1960s.

                  He attended the Havana game against the Orioles, striding onto the field
                  before the game to personally greet the U.S. players as the bulk of the
                  invitation-only, 50,000 crowd chanted "Fidel! Fidel!"

                  The Orioles, having a dreadful season at home, were the first U.S. Major
                  League side to visit Cuba in four decades of bitter official relations between
                  Havana and Washington since Castro's 1959 revolution.

                  Among the Cubans gathered for training at the Latinoamericano stadium are
                  the island's best-known stars -- shortstop German Mesa, and third baseman
                  Omar "The Kid" Linares. Also there is Jose Ariel Contreras, the young
                  pitcher who tormented the Orioles for eight innings in the Havana game.

                  "All the players are in good form," added baseball director Rodriguez. "We
                  have fast players ... the basis of our team will be fast play."

                  The Cuban team will travel to Baltimore over the weekend as part of a
                  300-member delegation consisting of top sports officials, retired players, and
                  25 schoolchildren.

                  Some U.S.-based Cuban exile groups opposed to Castro's one- party
                  communist rule are also planning to travel to Baltimore for protests against
                  the Cubans' presence.

                  Some observers have dubbed the games as an attempt at "baseball
                  diplomacy" between Cuba and the United States, referring to the so-called
                  "ping-pong diplomacy" with China that helped thaw U.S.-China ties in the

                  But officials on both sides have stressed it is a purely sporting exchange with
                  no political overtones intended.

                  Washington, which maintains a 37-year-old economic embargo on Cuba,
                  this year authorized the Orioles to visit the island and negotiate playing the
                  games with Cuba in an exception to the sanctions.

                  Cuba, which practices only amateur sports, has lost several top players to
                  the United States through defections in recent years, among them Orlando
                  Hernandez of the New York Yankees and his brother Livan Hernandez of
                  the Florida Marlins. Livan was named the 1997 World Series Most
                  Valuable Player, while Orlando helped the Yankees win the 1998 World
                  Series over the San Diego Padres.

                     Copyright 1999 Reuters