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Other side of the Line

April 30, 1999|By Bob Parasiliti

Rolando Pino crosses the line every day.

As manager of the Hagerstown Suns, he crosses one nearly every night during his trips to the pitcher's mound. It's the baseline - the white stripe that connects home plate to first base and separates the dugout from the playing field.

Crossing it is second nature to Pino and comes without consequence.

But in another time and another place - such as Monday at Camden Yards - that same thin, white line would seem as wide as a moat. Pino would be forced to take a personal inventory of his convictions with every step.

The Baltimore Orioles host the Cuban National Team in the second game of an international home-and-home series on Monday. Those circumstances alone would make it a whole new ball game for the Cuba native.

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This is different. It's not baseball. Now, it is politics, especially for a man who would be forced to straddle a line between his game and his heritage.

"I'm really in the middle," said Pino, who was born in Havana in 1964. "I don't have anything against the game, but I've always been against what (Cuban President Fidel) Castro did with the government and with communism there. The (Cuban) people of Miami don't like it either. Playing those games, it's just more money for the government."

Pino is definitely in the middle of a political rundown.

If he were involved in the exhibition, would Pino go with his head or his heart? His livelihood or his cultural beliefs? It's a choice between his game or his people.

And all for what many are considering a historic cultural exchange, Cuban-Americans wonder whose side the U.S. government is on.

"Playing that game in Cuba just made Fidel more powerful," Pino said. "(Castro) has been in power that long; he has to have a good brain. There has always been someone out there to kill him, but it never happens. He still survives. I don't understand how he takes over their minds."

The goodwill series was the brainchild of Baltimore owner Peter Angelos, who worked many baseball and political channels to be able to stage the games. It started in March when the Orioles played in Havana.

"Initially, I didn't believe it," Pino said. "The Orioles owner has always done things different from everyone else. It would have been tough for me to go back there and play in that game. On one side, it was a way to play in front of family, and that's good. I would have been able to see family that I haven't seen in a long time. But, to go back ... I'm against everything that has happened there."

Pino, 35, has been in the middle of a Cuban tug of war almost since his birth.

His birthplace of Havana is known for its vast wealth of baseball talent as well as its players' lack of personal wealth. The Cuban players are often considered among the greatest in the world, but are forced to remain amateurs - their fame confined to their island nation.

They have a shadowy reputation to American baseball fans, almost as much in the dark as the actions of its reigning government.

"Every time you see a special on TV about Fidel, they only show you the good things," Pino said "They never show you some of the other things that go on."

Baseball has been the lifeline for Pino through his past and present. His father played while the family lived in Cuba during Pino's early childhood. But the Pino family's well-being was more important than any baseball glory.

"My family got out of Cuba in 1969 around when I was 3 1/2 years old," Pino said. "Fidel was in power, but he hadn't taken totally over yet. People were allowed to leave when it was their turn, and it became my father's turn. My dad, I think, knew we wouldn't have another chance."

The Pino family's move to Miami gave Rolando a chance to excel in baseball. He starred at shortstop for Miami Springs High before becoming the second-round pick of the Chicago White Sox in 1982. Pino played for the Toronto and Minnesota organizations before becoming a minor league coach for the Blue Jays in 1992.

Although he never played in the majors, he had the hope of achieving that dream. He would have had no such hope if his family had remained in Cuba.

"I never thought about that," Pino said. "It has never been in my mind, but I can't imagine any of this happening."

But Pino's father's choice to leave Cuba didn't go without heartache or strain on his family.

"My father's family was against Castro, but my mother's family were pro-Castro," Pino said. "My mother's family was upset with her when she decided to leave the country, but she did whatever my father told her to do. As the years went by, we didn't talk about my mom's family. My dad told her one time to fly down and visit them, but it wasn't the same for her."

Pino said three uncles from his father's family of 18 brothers and one sister still live in Cuba. So do eight members of his mother's family, all people he hasn't seen in years, making any hypothetical choice about playing or bypassing any game in Cuba more difficult.

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