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HAVANA: a game.

April 3, 1990

Undated (AP) _ Castro, a one-time pitching prospect before making a career switch, likes the Santiago team from Cuba’s east end. He was raised nearby and, besides, that is the city where the revolution began.

Borges feels he and his team are constantly under the microscope. The ″Girardillos,″ as his team is called, finished in second place four years in a row and it’s been 15 years since Havana has won the ″selectiva.″ The fans are getting impatient.

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On this particular evening, the team dines together on pork chops at the sports complex and then boards the bus for the half hour ride to Latin American Stadium. As usual, Borges is nervous. The bus takes off behind schedule and he won’t have time for the pre-game meeting. Borges insists his players are nervous as well but the horseplay on the bus leaves a different impression.

Tonight’s opponent is Las Villas, a team from the central part of the country, and Havana is gunning for a three-game sweep. From the dressing room, the Havana team (known officially as Ciudad Habana) heads for the field, descending cement steps that have been chipped away by player spikes since 1946 when this relic, unsullied by artificial turf, was built.

The stadium seats 60,000 (some other playing fields in the league hold only 12,000) but there is a homey atmosphere, with many seats close to the action. It has a charm that some of the astroturfed U.S. ballfields lack.

There are relatively few private cars in Cuba so most fans walk to the park or take the bus. Shortly before gametime, with about 25,000 people in the stadium, about a third of the parking lot - there are only about 150 spaces - is filled. For the fans, the nice part is walking in and sitting down free of charge. The choicest seats are reserved for families of the players and VIP’s.

The atmosphere is relaxed. Here at least, the totalitarian police state ambience that American conservatives fret about is missing. Blacks predominate in the stands and on the playing field. Fans are expected to return foul balls hit into the stands. About 10 to 15 balls are used per game, well below the major league average.

A strapping right-hander, Lazaro Valle, only 19, has been picked to start for the home team. Borges says he’s one of the three best pitchers in the league. Control would be his biggest problem tonight.

For their part, the Girardillos are having few problems solving the Las Villas starter, Roberto Almarales, a slim righty. The home team, clad in blue and white, gets to him early.

In the bottom of the first, Mendez gets a big hand as he steps to the plate, the No. 3 hitter. The crowd leaps to its feet when Mendez drills one to deep right center. But a stiff wind robs him of a home run; the ball is caught just to the right of the 380-foot sign and to the left of the sign for Fidel’s speech. Still, Havana jumps out to a 2-0 in the first.

In the bottom of the second, the crowd gasps as the Havana catcher, Armando Ferreiro, is struck on the side of the head by an Almarales pitch. He lies motionless at home plate. Soon he is carried off on a stretcher.

As soon as he disappears into the dugout, the crowd mood turns ugly. ″Amarillo, amarillo,″ they shout at Almarales. Literally, that means ″yellow, yellow,″ but, as in English, it really means ″coward.″

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The American ancestry of the game is very evident here despite efforts by the government to eradicate U.S. influence in other aspects of Cuban life. Instead of Spanish translations, the scoreboard shows ″SS,″ ″RF,″ ″LF,″ and ″CF″ to designate positions. The borrowing from the English doesn’t stop there: strike, inning, out, umpire, wild pitch and passed ball. A hit is a ″jit.″ You can guess what a ″jonron″ is. A ″Texas?.″ You guessed that one, too.

Borges had offered to let Ferreira sit out the game because his wife was in the last stages of a difficult pregnancy. But Ferreira wouldn’t hear of it.

″Money can’t buy that kind of dedication,″ said Borges, implying that perhaps the U.S. should follow Cuba’s example and go amateur. (Ferreira’s doctors reported the next day that his head injury was not serious.)

Meanwhile, after walking his second time up, Mendez rockets another shot into the wind toward right his next turn. Again a potential home run falls short but at least he gets a sacrifice fly (″fly de sacrificio″ in the local lingo).

In the sixth inning, with the home team ahead 6-0, a local gadfly dubbed ″Armando el tintorero″ (Armando the laundryman) leaps onto the top of the Havana dugout with a pail and a broom and goes to work, celebrating the anticipated clean sweep of Las Villas.

In the bottom of the eighth, Havana’s lead swells to 11-3. Mendez, having been denied two homers by the wind, steps up with two on. He crushes yet another toward right. Even a gale couldn’t stop this one. It sails into the bleachers and Mendez can finally circle the bases.

That makes the score 14-3. Under league rules, if a team is ahead by 10 or more runs after seven innings, the game is over. So it’s a kayo for the home team tonight, or in everyday jargon, a ″nocaut.″ Guess where they got that word?

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