BY ANNE-MARIE GARCÍA | Special for Granma International | [url=http://www.granma.cu]http://www.granma.cu[/url]
WOUNDED in its pride, Cuba plans to go to the Olympic Games in Athens and re-conquer its baseball title, lost four years ago to its perennial rival, the United States, although the latter did not classify, and so will not provide the opportunity for a rematch.
“I wish I were already in Athens beginning to compete, to get over the pain of Sydney,” pitcher Pedro Luis Lazo commented to Granma International.
The experienced 31-year-old right-hander, whose pitches reach more than 90 mph, lost during the Sydney finals in 2000, when the U.S. team won 4-0.
After training with the pre-selection of 33 players in Havana’s Latinoamericano Stadium, Lazo noted, “Our people always expect victory from their baseball team; for me, that’s more of a motivation than any heavy pressure.”
The pitcher, who threw an 8-5 average during the 2004 National Series, mentioned Japan as a top rival, but added, “We can’t discount anyone. Being the favorite is not an advantage – our competitors will be playing all-out against us.”
The sun and heat were overwhelming on a July morning as the players sweated it out in a practice game between the two pre-selection teams in a closed stadium, under strict monitoring.
The Olympic team is to be decided at the end of preparation training and two games in Japan in July. Higinio Velez, the Cuban team’s coach, commented, “We have a quality defense, strength and speed on the bases, young and versatile players, and solid and deep pitching.” He added, “We’ll make a few adjustments just before going to Athens.”
Velez, who has led the team since 2001, said that the principal pitcher would be Norge Luis Vera, who played perfectly in the World Games and the 2003 pre-Olympics.
“I gained confidence. I have a responsibility, and I assume it in a relaxed way, confident that everything will turn out well,” affirmed Vera, 33. He has a lot of control and resources, is very stable and fast, with pitches in excess of 90 mph.
The right-hander, who will be pitching his second Olympic Games, added, “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a minor rival, and I think that the Olympic tournament will be the most difficult that we’ve faced in recent years.”
Vera mentioned his 4-year-old son, who’s already beginning to pitch. “He breaks a lot of things at home,” he said, smiling, adding, “I know that my whole family, and everyone in Santiago de Cuba is expecting a victory, and that’s motivating.”
The selectees play their training game silently, emanating seriousness, almost monotony.
“We’re really tense,” explained 31-year-old centerfielder Carlos Tabares. He added, “We can’t fail, we have our people behind us, so the Olympic victory will be a happy event, a defeat for sadness.”
Tabares, who has a .328 average, dreams of winning “the only title I don’t have” in Athens. He commented that the Cuban team’s strength is “unity, the rapport among all of us, and the young talents who are willing to demonstrate that they are a new generation that can be counted on.”
The Havana native added that the Cuban team always plays under more pressure than the rest. “We have the harassment from the talent scouts. It’s annoying, even though we’re prepared for it, and we know what answer we’re going to give, but we’d like to be able to play peacefully and enjoy baseball.”
For his part, first baseman Antonio Scull, who will be participating in his third Olympic Games, dreams of bringing home a gold to his five-month-old son.
He considers that the first game against Australia will be very important. “Starting off with a victory will give us confidence to continue. Besides, Australia is a dangerous rival who has always played well against us. We won 1-0 in Sydney and they beat us during the Intercontinental Cup in 1999,” Scull recalled.
The left-handed batter, who held a .300 average during the National Series with his team, Industriales, added, “For me, Athens is the peak of a great season, where I won the series with my team. It was great. Now I have a lot of responsibility, but everything’s going well.”
At the Athens tournament, scheduled for August 15-25, eight teams will compete: Australia, Canada, Cuba, Greece, Japan, Holland, Italy and Taiwan.
Since its Olympic defeat in 2000, Cuba has won all of the tournaments in which it has participated: the 2001 and 2003 World Games, the 2002 Intercontinental Cup, and the Pan-American Games, as well as the pre-Olympic Games of 2003.
After Sydney, a number of illustrious veterans retired, including stellar third baseman Omar Linares, the Cuban offense’s spark plug for many years, who now plays professional baseball in Japan, while long-ball hitter Orestes Kindelan and skillful infielders Antonio Pacheco and Germán Mesa are also lending their talents in that island nation.