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Cuba Welcomes The Orioles

Toting trumpets, drums and the plastic bottles filled with cheap rum, tens of thousands of baseball-crazy Cubans will celebrate the return of major league baseball to the communist island after 40 years.

"Tell the Orioles to bring their earplugs!" Jorge Leis screamed, shaking a gourd rattle amid the musical clamor of a playoff game at Latinoamericano stadium last week.

"And tell them to get ready to lose!"

Sunday's exhibition game at Latinoamericano has been the hottest topic of discussion on Havana street corners, in bars, workplaces and schools.

Cuba's tens of thousands of self-appointed baseball experts disagree on who will win, who are the best players, the virtues of wooden bats versus aluminum ones.

But after four decades, what they really want to know is how their beloved "peloteros" -- ball players -- measure up to the big leaguers from the north.

"I think it is going to be a great show between the two countries, both of whom have great teams," Evel Bastida, third baseman for Havana's Industriales, said as he warmed up for the Wednesday night playoff.

" It will be a good test to see who is really the best, if the American big leaguers really are the best in the world," added fellow Industriales infielder Lazaro Vargas, considered one of Cuba's best players.

Vargas was seen as a likely last-minute addition to the Cuban team after the Industriales' games last week.

The Cuban team was practicing in private at a field outside Havana and sports authorities denied media access to players.

The early lineup included third baseman Omar Linares, also considered one of the country's top players, catcher Juan Manrique and pitchers Jose Ariel Contreres, Pedro Luis Lazo and Jose Ibar.

All in the first group came from eight Cuban teams earlier eliminated in the current playoffs. They were to be joined by members of the remaining teams late in the week.

Since the middle of the month, Cuban players have traded in their traditional aluminum bats for the wooden ones used by players in the United States and other countries.

Cuban fans will get to see slugger Albert Belle up close and personal.>
Cuban fans will get to see slugger Albert Belle up close and personal. (AP)

The switch to wooden bats was a condition made by the Americans. They also insisted on the installation of padding along the walls of the playing field.

While the players have remained low key, baseball fans have not.

Grumbling began late in the week as word leaked out that entrance to Sunday's gam at the 50,000-seat stadium would be by invitation only. Among those expected to be invited were members of the communist government's sports organizations and schools.

"It's the only way," said a sports official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If not, we will have a million people trying to get into the stadium -- pure chaos."

Those with an assured seat included Donatila Lopez, a grandmother of seven who receives a small government stipend to ensure order at bleachers near home plate.

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

President Fidel Castro, a former baseball player with a legendary love of the sport known here simply as "pelota" -- ball -- also is expected.

Major league baseball teams used to visit Cuba regularly, but the last were the Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers, who played exhibition games there in March 1959, about 2½ months after Castro's revolution ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista on New Year's Day.

A newspaper story at the time told of how the "sizzling Dodgers" shaded the Reds 4-3 before 3,400 "highly vocal rooters."

The tradition of vocal rooting was in full display during last week's playoffs. A huge cheer went up through neighborhoods across Havana on Wednesday night as the Industriales beat the team from the Isla of Juventud.

Enormous roars undulated across the stadium as an elderly man in horn-rimmed glasses known to all simply as Armandito led tens of thousands of Industriales fans in The Wave.

On a nearby platform, five teen-age cheerleaders in red halter tops and short white skirts gyrated hips to the toot-toot-toot of a huge steel horn powered by a diesel engine.

Housewives in curlers, elderly laborers smoking enormous cigars, little boys clutching baseballs all screamed passionately as the Havana favorites achieved victory.

Orchestra players with trombones, trumpets, and the large metal bell known here as a "cecerro" blared and clanged their approval.

"Cuba will win on Sunday, of course," said Industriales fan Leis, shaking the gourd known as a "chekere," which like the steel bell is an important instrument in Cuban music.

"The Orioles are good, but so are we," he added, as a trombone slide almost struck him in the head. "And if not, we win for enthusiasm. "

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