HAVANA - In the bottom of the eighth inning during yesterday's game against the Cuban national team, when Mike Timlin, a $16 million relief pitcher, gave up the tying run, Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos may have turned to Fidel Castro and said, "Give me your gun." Fortunately for Timlin, Harold Baines delivered the Orioles from embarrassment when he singled home the winning run in the top of the 11th in their 3-2 victory over Cuba at Latinoamericano Stadium.
It's hard to tell which manager should have been more afraid of losing the historic game - Orioles manager Ray Miller or Cuban manager Alfonso Urquoila, with Castro and Angelos sitting side by side behind home plate, like a Pizza Hut advertisement.
There will be hot discussions in the old tertulias - the daily Cuban baseball debates - about some of the moves Urquoia made, like taking a pitcher out of the game who had held the Orioles to just two hits over eight innings, and then intentionally walking B.J. Surhoff in the top of the 11th to pitch to Baines, who made him pay.
Those people at Parque Central today, though, didn't get a chance to see the game in person. It was by government invitation only, and for much of the game, it seemed like they had invited every Prozac patient in Havana.
At the start, the 50,000 fans at the ballpark were as quiet as Cubans at a First Amendment rally. It was nothing like the other night there during a playoff game between two Cuban teams. The noise then started before the game and continued for the entire game - nonstop. Music was playing, fans were sing ing, women were dancing on the dugout . . . it was hot and spicy, like a Tito Puente concert.
Yesterday was like a Ray Coniff Singers Christmas show - at least until the Cuban team scored in the seventh inning to cut the Orioles' lead to 2-1. The energy picked up then and intensified when they tied it at 2-2. Still, it was not the same crowd that often makes Cuban baseball such a sensory overload experience.
Then again, it was as much a state event as a baseball game, with Castro sitting behind home plate during the worldwide broadcast, with Angelos on one side and baseball commissioner Bud Selig on the other.
If Fidel wants to sit with you, I guess there's not a whole lot you can do about it in Havana. Still, just days after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution by voice vote that condemns Castro's human rights record, it was an uncomfortable scene. There was a little too much love going on there. Somebody should have been squirming in their seat a little more.
Maybe Angelos was lobbying Selig to sell the Montreal Expos to Castro. Selig didn't want to talk about the Expos yesterday and their possible move to the Washington area. "I've got too much on my mind to think about the Expos now," Selig said.
It seemed like a good time to me, though. They're playing major league baseball in Havana, Mexico City, and now they're talking about Japan. Hey Bud, what about Washington?
It was that kind of conflicted day. It was a historic game, the first time in 40 years that a major league team has played in Cuba. The playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" was a stirring scene, and there were all sorts of little treasured moments, like when one American spectator, looking at the way a young Cuban boy looked at his baseball hat from an American minor league team, just gave it to the boy.
Then there was the hitting show that Albert Belle put on during batting practice, sending one ball after another into the outfield seats, drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd. Unfortunately, Albert left his game in the batting cage. He went 0-for-5, left six runners on base, and failed to hustle on a ground ball that turned out to be a double play. He didn't curse out Castro, though, so it was still a plus day for Albert.
But there are Cuban citizens who didn't get a chance to see any of these moments, who missed this historic game. They are in jail for speaking out against the government.
Somebody should have squirmed a little in their seat over that.