The Old Man and the Grudge Match

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You can imagine the thought that crept into Fidel Castro's mind sometime last year: "I would like for Cuba to play baseball against the great New York Yankees!" Except of course that would be embarrassing, since the Yankees are paying quite a bit of money to the Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez. And so the thought became "I would like for Cuba to play baseball against the great Baltimore Orioles!" And on March 28 it was so, when an Orioles team featuring some of the highest-priced talent in the bigs went down to Havana and became the first Major League Baseball team to play there since Castro started, er, managing the island in 1959. The Cuban national team, minus several stars, lost an extra-inning game 3-2, showing that they could compete with the big boys.

The rematch tonight in Baltimore's Camden Yards could be ugly, and not for the boys from Havana. The Cubans, national pride pulsing through their veins, are playing to even the series and have added several Major League-quality hitters to their roster, while the Orioles have rather messily imploded this season. In fact, the joke around Baltimore is that the only smart business decision team owner Peter Angelos has made this year is bringing the Cubans to town, hoping perhaps that the game could prove to be an entry point into the Cuban talent pool, which by some estimates contains as many as 75 Major League-caliber players. Currently, Cuban stars can't play in the U.S. unless they defect (and agents will no doubt be circling around the Yards like sharks tonight to encourage that); players hope to convince Castro to allow them to play as long as they continue to live (and pay taxes) in Cuba. But before that, there's the game, and what could be the Cubans' secret weapon: the Orioles left behind a cache of wooden bats for the cash-strapped Cubans accustomed to more durable aluminum ones. Given a month to practice, they might just play well enough to bring a smile to Castro's face -- and perhaps even to grab their own share of baseball's sky-high salaries.