Neither the performance nor the behavior of United States visitors to the Pan American Games improved Friday. Puerto Rico, already having upset the United States in men's basketball the day before, did likewise in baseball, 7-1, at Estadio Latino Americano, where the losing coach gave a "choke" gesture to the umpire who ejected him.
Held to seven hits by Wilfredo Velez, a junkballer who says he has spurned contract offers from the Dodgers, New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs, it was the latest Pan Am downer for the red, white and mostly blue, particularly since they already had defeated Puerto Rico in the Games by seven runs. This one denied the United States an expected rematch with Cuba for the gold medal.
After a balk call in the sixth inning cost his club a run, Ron Polk from Mississippi State sprung from the dugout to argue with first-base umpire Nelson Diaz Blanco, a Cuban. During their quarrel, the coach screamed inches from the face of Blanco, but never laid a finger on him. The umpire, however, poked Polk, sending him into such a rage that several times Polk had to be physically restrained.
"He started pushing me. That never happens in U.S. baseball," Polk said afterward. "I spent more time yelling at him not to touch me than I did arguing the call."
Havana has hardly been a vacation land for baseball umpires, who have been at the center of several controversies. One from San Diego, Dan Pederson, suspended a game between Mexico and Canada after a brawl, was later suspended himself, then reinstated, then went home anyway. And a Canadian umpire, Bernie McGuire, was pushed to the ground by pitching coach Anastasio Velasquez of Nicaragua, who has been banned from international competition for at least one year.
After Polk's ejection Friday, the U.S. Olympic coach, Ron Fraser from the University of Miami, who was seated in the stands, asked regarding the umpire: "Is he a Cuban?"
Informed he was, Fraser said: "Of course. Who do you figure Cuba wants to play (for the gold medal)?"
Polk said after the game he didn't know or care that the first-base umpire was Cuban--as was the plate umpire.
"Maybe in his (Blanco's) part of Cuba, the umpire attacks the coach, I don't know," Polk said. "He might be the nicest guy in Cuba, for all I know. Nice family and everything else. The guy still made a bad call."
When the balk happened, the United States already was behind, 4-1, because of a third-inning grand slam by Efrain Garcia, who later claimed that because he raised his finger in celebration while running the bases, first baseman Dan Melendez of Pepperdine told him that the next pitch Garcia saw would come straight toward his head. (It didn't.)
Garcia got a break on his homer because starting pitcher Jeff Ware of Old Dominion caught a spike on the pitching rubber and hesitated in mid-delivery. This, too, was called a balk, but in international baseball a team has the option of taking the play instead of the penalty, and Garcia drove Ware's awkward pitch into the left-field seats.
Ware was relieved by Kennie Steenstra of Wichita State, who in the sixth had two outs with runners on first and third. Steenstra got a signal from his coach to use a tricky pickoff move that they had tried successfully many times before, and indeed, he caught Jose Lorenzana leaning at first base. But Blanco called a belated balk, advancing both runners a base.
Said Melendez: "It was ridiculous. I'd already started the rundown when he called the balk. I think the guy just froze."
He protested, as did Steenstra, who said: "I kept yelling: 'Why? Why?' And he kept yelling something back at me in Spanish. So I asked another umpire: 'Why?' And he said: 'Because it's a balk.' That's when the coach came out."
Polk was so startled at finding the umpire's finger in his chest that he lost his composure completely. His assistants had to bearhug him after the ejection, and Pat McMahon of Old Dominion took over the team. With the largely pro-Puerto Rico crowd booing him loudly, Polk placed his palm across his throat, picked up his briefcase and left the dugout.
His actions did not enhance the team's popularity. When right fielder Chris Wimmer crashed into a fence while chasing a two-run double by Jorge Aranzamendi in the eighth inning, a trumpet player seated among fans waving Cuban and Puerto Rican flags played "Taps" as a stretcher was brought out for the outfielder.
Craig Wilson, leading off the ninth for the United States, was called out on strikes by Cuban plate umpire Ivan Davis Mata. He spoke sharply to the umpire, slammed down his helmet and punched the bench, as the crowd continued to jeer. Melendez, who took a called third strike for the next out, said: "It doesn't make any difference if it was over the plate or not. You don't blame a 7-1 game on an umpire."
Lost in some of the commotion was the expertly pitched game by Velez, who struck out six with an assortment of unimpressive but effective pitches.
"Sinker, junk, anything I can think of," Velez said. "Anything but a fastball, especially my fastball. You throw a fastball to the United States, you're dead meat."
The modest left-hander has beaten the United States twice before in international play, which is why the Dodgers and others have shown interest in him. Velez said the Cubs recently offered him $12,000, but he felt that was not enough of a stake to make it worth leaving Puerto Rico's national team at this point in his life.
Velez was hoisted onto the shoulders of Puerto Rican teammates, including some of the basketball players who on Thursday had defeated the United States. With gold medal games today in both sports, Velez called this one of the greatest times ever for his country athletically. Puerto Rico goes for the baseball championship against Cuba, which defeated the Dominican Republic, 14-5, in Friday's other semifinal game.
The final out against the United States was a pop fly to the second baseman, and Velez said: "Somehow we had to catch that ball--with the hand, with the nose, with the mouth. That out made us one of the two best baseball teams in the Pan American Games."
The United States was in no position to argue.