HAVANA (CNN) -- Thousands of jubilant fans joined Cuban President Fidel
Castro in welcoming home the triumphant national baseball team Tuesday, the
day after it soundly defeated the Baltimore Orioles in the United States.
"This was a truly historic event," Castro said during a three-hour speech
steps of the University of Havana. "For a long time we have wanted to measure
the advances in our sport."
Castro made no mention of the possible defection of several missing members
of the Cuban baseball delegation, despite reports that one of them had applied
for asylum in the United States.
But Castro personally congratulated Cesar Valdes, the Cuban umpire who
tackled an anti-Cuban government demonstrator who ran onto the field
during the game in Baltimore, Maryland.
Baseball is a national passion in the Caribbean communist country, and
Cubans young and old closely followed every moment of the historic game.
"I felt a huge surge of emotion," said one little boy who turned out to
the returning players. "I felt like jumping and shouting."
'We can fight on any terrain'
For many Cubans, the game represented more than baseball. That the tiny
island nation defeated a team from its powerful adversarial neighbor to the
north made the victory particularly sweet, as if David had beat Goliath.
"We beat them on their own territory, before a crowd that was against us.
And this demonstrates that we're strong and courageous, that we can fight
on any terrain," a soldier in the crowd said.
First baseman Omar Linares thanked Castro for his support for the team,
which beat Baltimore 12-6 in the rematch. On March 28, the Orioles
defeated the Cubans in Havana 3-2.
"Dear commander in chief, the mission you gave us has been completed,"
said a smiling Linares before hugging the leader. "Socialism or death!
Patriotism or death! We will overcome!"
The players waved from open Jeeps to the crowds lining the streets as they
traveled to the university from the airport.
"Cuba! Cuba!" the fans chanted, some waving the red, white and blue
Lucia Newman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.