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
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
Cuba's sports authorities assembled three weeks' ago 48 of the island's
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.
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
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
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
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