Drums, horns celebrate home runs in Cuban baseball

Posted: Sunday, May 20, 2001

SANTIAGO, Cuba -- It's a tense moment in Cuba's version of the World Series: a scoreless tie in the seventh inning, a brilliant but tiring starter, a runner on first, a .330 hitter at the plate. And you can't hear yourself think.

A stereophonic cacophony of Afro-Cuban drumbeats pounds down from both sides of the stands at Guillermon Moncada Stadium as Faustino Corrales, neck muscles popping out, hurls a pitch. Rolando Merino belts it down the left-field line and into the stands.

Things get even noisier.

Americans may love baseball, may have even beaten Cuba at the Sydney Olympics, but they don't know how to dance to a curveball.

On vacant lots around Santiago, and all across the island, kids in ragged shoes use sticks to whack balls, rocks, whatever, at fielders with maybe three gloves among nine players.

Some of them grow up to be pretty good players.

Cuba's national championship is taking place, with power-heavy Santiago -- known as the ''Steamroller'' to its fans -- trying to win a third straight national championship over Pinar del Rio, a team that leans on excellent pitching.

With a 3-1 lead, Santiago has a chance to finish things off Sunday at home.

As the drums and dancing among the 11,000 spectators indicate, this is not George W. Bush's World Series.

Players wander around outside the stadium chatting with wives and friends, almost unbothered by the streaming fans, barely an hour before the game.

There is Orestes Kindelan, a stocky, Ruthian figure who has amassed 475 home runs in a career of 90-game seasons.

There is Corrales, who reached 2,000 career strikeouts in Thursday night's game, third best in the past 40 years of Cuban baseball. The game was halted as players from both teams ran to the mound to congratulate him.

And then there are the fans, who paid about 5 to 10 cents for admission.

Pinar del Rio, Cuba's westernmost team, brought a small contingent of supporters the length of the island to Santiago. They danced and beat drums -- and continued to beep a pump horn even in the ninth inning with two strikes, two outs and their team suddenly down 9-0.

Pinar's drumbeat is unquestionably danceable, save for that grating horn. But Santiago's drums are a work of art, as might be expected in the heart of Cuban music. A special touch is the eerie wail of a Chinese horn.

''There are times when they (the players) lose concentration, especially the youngest, who are not adapted to so much noise,'' said Pinar del Rio manager Jorge Fuentes, a former manager of Cuba's national team.

But he said it helps ''prepare the athletes mentally'' for other tough situations -- say quieter Olympic crowds four times larger.

Baseball championships are broadcast nationally on radio and television, but Cuba's thin newspapers have little room for statistics and there's no sports radio.

Instead, ardent fans gather in parks where they yell at each other face to face about whether Fuentes left Corrales in too long on Thursday or whether Santiago's manager should have pinch hit with the bases loaded in Monday's shutout loss to Pinar del Rio ace Jose Contreras.

In Santiago's Plaza del Marte, an ever-changing group of about 50 fans held forth on Friday, occasionally referring to boards of statistics dangling on ropes from the trees.

Orlando ''El Duque'' Hernandez, now a Yankee, was still listed: No. 1 in career win-loss percentage at .728 but tied for 49th in career ERA at 3.05.

''Santiago is like the Yankees of Cuba,'' insisted Jose Antonio Fonseca.

In Cuba, most promising players are plucked at about age 12 into special schools to develop their baseball talents. Others who develop later are pulled into Cuba's youth leagues before making their way at last into the Cuban national league.

The elite Cuban athletes receive special privileges, although their basic monthly salaries wouldn't buy a single meal for a U.S. major leaguer.

The Cuban players don't seem to run from fans, perhaps because there aren't hordes seeking marketable autographs. And there's a lot of fraternizing with opponents. The best rival players are also teammates on Cuba's national team.

Many also share the experience of having shunned multimillion-dollar offers from U.S. scouts. Contreras said he had heard ''innumerable'' offers, some from people who found him at home, one from a scout who followed him to the movies. Most Cubans play for their hometown teams all their careers.

''The people follow that team and follow that athlete because they know that athlete is going to play many years for the same team,'' Fuentes said. ''To me, that gives a shine, adds beauty to the show, especially for the fans.''

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