Cuba's baseball team, perhaps mirroring its graybeard dictator, was thought to be weakening with age. Some of Fidel Castro's diamond dearest are creaking into their mid-30s. In recent months, three younger Cuban talents have defected for American major-league fortunes. He called each a "Judas."
As a political force, Castro may be more vulnerable than ever. His beisbol soldiers, on their Olympic mission to Georgia, have not so flamboyantly strutted Cuba's long-running attitude of global invincibility.
But will they lose?
Cuba has won 140 consecutive games in international competition. Oh, yeah, these Joses and Juans and Omars aren't what they used to be. Weakening indeed. Six-and-oh in Atlanta. Making it 140-and-oh since 1987.
Since the World Series champion Braves are not Olympic entries, the best Atlanta possibility for snatching the gold medal from the Cubans is unquestionably a gifted but green collection of United States collegians.
Sunday offered confusing clues.
In what was little more than a medallion teaser between the two 5-0 Olympic contenders, El Big Red Machine bulled to a 10-2 lead before an Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium crowd of 51,223 that was overwhelming and demonstratively pro-American.
But these U.S. kids, they do fight. Home runs began to fly as if it were Ryan Klesko, Fred McGriff and Chipper Jones in those home-team white uniforms. Instead, the Sunday rallying smacks were launched by not-yet-millionaires Chad Allen, Troy Glaus, Jacque Jones and Warren Morris.
Back in Havana, Castro probably had lit up a Red Auerbach victory cigar after his lead ballooned to 10-2. If so, the dictator eventually must have begun to choke on smoke. It became 10-5, then 10-7. Perhaps the boss back home even made an emergency phone call to an Atlanta dugout.
By whomever's orders, the Cubans went to their most imposing pitchers, Omar Ajete and Pedro Luis Lazo, to stifle the onrushing Yanks in a game that would end with 10-8 dramatics.
"We're past any fear stage against Cuba," said U.S. pitcher Seth Greisinger, drafted by the Detroit Tigers out of the University of Virginia. "We're just as good as the Cubans. Their only edge is having played big games at high levels for many years. It's still pretty new to us."
Chances are good for a Cuban-American rematch Friday with far shinier stakes. "That one would be for the Olympic gold medal, which means more to us than anything in sports," Cuba coach Jorge Fuentes said. "If we win the gold, as we did in 1992 at Barcelona, our players will be heroes to all Cuban people. If we lose, they will be orphans. Nobody accepts losing."
Especially the cigar guy.
"Fans in Cuba know the United States has a good team," said Castro's second baseman, Antonio Pacheco. "You can't always win. It's a game. If it were automatic, you wouldn't play. They would just give us the gold medal. Someday, we will lose. Maybe not this week; maybe not this year. But someday. We are human beings, not machines."
Humming, well-oiled humans.
Fuentes, a pleasant man, was asked if beating the United States meant more than winning over any country on Earth. "Absolutely!" he said. "I do not know if the word dynasty is proper (regarding the 140-0 run), but the people of the Caribbean have developed an art of playing baseball. We from Cuba have a particular style. It has been very good to us."
Relentless winning style.
Third baseman Omar Linares, widely regarded as the most prodigious talent in Cuba's lineup, said he once turned down a $1.5-million New York Yankees bonus to defect to the United States. At 28, the power hitter has shown unbending support for Castro's political system and zero interest in jumping to major-league baseball.
Not until Sunday night.
"There could be a way," Linares said through an interpreter. "If (political) relations between Cuba and the United States ever got better, something might happen." Chances of that, for now, seem far more of a long shot than the Americans beating the Cubans for Atlanta gold. "Right now," Linares said, "I would rather play for 11-million people than for $11-million."
Linares said he would welcome a gold-medal rematch with the Americans. With no apologies to gymnasts, swimmers, basketball players or track athletes, the extraordinary infielder said, "I feel it would be the top attraction of these Olympics if Cuba played the United States for the championship."
Castro probably agrees.
Pass the stogies.