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Visa Glitch Delays Cuban Team

May 2, 1999

HAVANA (AP) _ The Cuban national baseball team’s flight to Baltimore was delayed until Sunday afternoon because of holdups in some U.S. visas for the more than 300 people in the delegation, according to Cuba’s official news agency.

The visa holdup for a brief time had endangered the team’s trip to the United States for Monday’s exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards. At one point, the Cuban government said the whole trip was in danger of being not only delayed, but suspended.

Cuba’s Prensa Latina news service said early Sunday that the flight would leave in the afternoon. It gave no exact time.

It said the visa problem was worked out late Saturday night but gave no details.

The Cuban team will be led by sluggers Omar ``El Nino″ Linares, Orestes Kindelan, Antonio Pacheco and Gabriel Pierre. The last three were unable to play in the first game against the Orioles, held in Havana on March 28, because they were tied up in Cuba’s national baseball series.

The pitchers include Cuba’s best: Jose Ariel Contreras, Jose Ibar and Pedro Luis Lazo. The others are Norge Luis Vera, Ormary Romero, Alexis Rodriguez and Maels Rodriguez.

``I am ready to start in the game if they chose me to pitch,″ said Contreras as he and other players picked for Cuban squad received their uniforms at a store near Parque Central.

``I’ll pitch like I did here, with hardballs and curveballs,″ Contreras said, as he signed autographs for local fans.

Contreras held the Orioles scoreless in his eight-inning relief appearance March 28 at Latinoamericano stadium, though Baltimore won 3-2 in 11 innings in the first appearance by a major league team in Havana in 40 years.

The right-handed Contreras struck out 10 batters _ including slugger Albert Belle twice _ while allowing two hits.

On Saturday afternoon, before Cuban sports officials had publicly announced the starting lineup, the players knew only that they were to pick up their uniforms for the game in Baltimore. But they were unclear about what role they were to play.

``I don’t really know if I am going to pitch in the game,″ said another of Cuba’s best pitchers, Pedro Luis Lazo, who was the loser in the first game. ``It all depends on the manager. If needed, I’ll work as relief.″

Also picking up his uniform was Jose Ibar, who started in the March 28 game. ``I’m going for Cuba,″ said Ibar, who has won 38 games in the last two years.

About 200 fans crowded around the players outside the store as word spread that they were there to pick up their uniforms.

Others included leftfielder Javier Mendez, designated hitter Orestes Kindelan and second baseman Antonio Pacheco, none of whom played in the first exhibition because they were tied up with the national baseball series.

Kindelan and Pacheco play for the Santiago team, which won the series. Mendez plays for the hometown favorite Industriales, which came in second.

``This team is going to have some of the most powerful players,″ said Lucel Mesa, 16, an agronomy student who gathered with the others to get autographs. ``We’re going to win.″

Adding to Cuba’s chances are the Orioles’ struggles. Baltimore had the worst record in the major leagues entering the weekend and was concentrating more on ending its slump than on meeting the Cubans.

Nothing discouraged Maria Fandina, a 72-year-old housewife who asked for Lazo’s autograph.

``It is going to be a great game,″ she said.

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