Boisterous crowd takes in Cuba-USA baseball

Image: Cuban fans waves flags
Fans watch Cuba's extra-inning win over the United States in a preliminary game.Frederic J Brown / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: contributor

"Cuba, jia you!"

"Mei guo, jia you!"

As if the Olympics weren't international enough, Cuban and American fans at Friday afternoon's spirited baseball game were chanting in Chinese. Mei guo means America. Jia you is a popular chant among Chinese fans. Its literal translation means "add gas" but it's more akin to a "let's go" chant.

So there I was on a picturesque Friday afternoon, standing amidst the partisan section at the Wukesong Baseball Field, watching two proud baseball nations and two bitter rivals face off and listening to chants in English, Spanish and Chinese. Unlike other venues, spectators had filled up most of the stadium, enjoying the blue skies, hot dogs on sticks and the foreign game (to the Chinese) of baseball.

But to the Cubans and Americans who were sitting on the first-base line, this was a game of utmost importance. After losing its opener on Wednesday to South Korea, the U.S. team could ill afford another defeat. Cuba wanted to stay undefeated and improve to 3-0. Most important, Cuba wanted to send the Yankees home with a loss.

Cesar Torres, who had traveled to Beijing as part of an entertainment troupe, was part of a vocal group of Cubans waving the national flag, dancing and singing.

"We are competing in the stands, too," he said, his eyes never leaving the action on the field.

Americans and Cubans were trying to win the hearts and minds of Chinese fans. Whenever one group of fans chanted in Mandarin, many Chinese fans would join in. The most innovative chant was "Mei guo, hwei jia!" Cubans were telling the Yankees to go home, in the politest way, of course.

For the Chinese, the game was a head-scratcher. There's a fledgling baseball league in China, but teams play only about 30 games in a season. At one point, a U.S. player tossed a ball into the stands. A fan, not knowing what to do with the ball, tossed the ball back onto the field.

But Chinese fans around the cheering section seemed to be having fun, joining in on the chants, asking for photos and clapping whenever anyone else clapped (two Americans who had attended Wednesday's China-Japan game said naive fans were cheering for foul balls).

Aggie Inman and her daughter Amy Larson — the mother and sister of Olympic rower Josh Inman — were sitting two rows in front of Torres and the Cuban cheering section. They had scored tickets the night before, not knowing what to expect at the stadium.

In between chants of "U-S-A" and "All the way, U-S-A" (there was even a chant of "DE-fense"), Inman and Larson said they were loving the atmosphere.

"This is what it's all about," Inman said.

Although there was a strong contingent of Americans letting their support be heard, credit had to be given to the Cuban fans. "I have to admit, the Cubans have great songs," Larson said.

Behind them several Cuban women, dressed in body-tight shirts and short shorts, were dancing and posing for photographs with eager Chinese fans (men). "Of course [they want pictures]," Torres said. "They want pictures of Cuba's beautiful women."

As the action heated up, so did the partisan cheering. Americans around the field exploded in unison when Jayson Nix homered in the eighth inning to tie the score. The tension tightened when the game went into extra innings (a special format introduced at the Games where two base runners start each inning). Torres began praying and humming before each of Pedro Luis Lazo's pitches.

"Of course I'm nervous," he said. "One wrong moment, we lose. But I believe in our pitcher. He's the best pitcher in Cuba!"

The carnival continued until the 11th inning. Nix, who was squaring to bunt, fouled a pitch into his face, injuring his left eye. From the stands, blood could been seen dripping from Nix's face. The crowd was finally hushed.

Although there was anger from the U.S. manager afterward — Davey Johnson accused Cuba of intentionally throwing at Nix — there was genuine concern among the fans. When Nix was helped to the dugout, nearly everyone — American, Cuban, Chinese — clapped.

As Cuba wrapped up its gritty 5-4 victory, fans strolled out onto the concourse. Cuban fans were jubilant, Americans a little subdued. In the corner, a man holding a Cuba jacket posed for a photograph with a man in a USA hat. There was no ill will (at least for now, before either of them would have a chance to read Johnson's remarks).

"We are all friends," Torres said. "It's like what the Chinese say, one dream, one world."