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Aussies win silver in baseball

By Alex Brown
August 26, 2004 - 6:34AM

Australian pitcher Ryan Rowland Smith lets one loose at a Cuban batter during the Olympic baseball final. Photo: Darren Pateman

Sublime Cuban pitching and an atrocious fourth inning umpiring decision combined to sink the Australian baseball team's gold medal aspirations last night.

Though Cuba eventually emerged comfortable 6-2 victors at the Helliniko baseball stadium, Australia were well in contention until late in a match that saw manager Jon Deeble and coach Paul Elliott ejected for arguing an umpiring call.

Their argument, however, was justified. After right-fielder Tom Bryce clubbed a towering shot to deep centrefield in the fourth, Cuban outfielder Carlos Tabares fumbled the ball against the wall - not once, but twice - before eventually gloving the chance.

Baseball rules state that any ball touching the wall is in play. And with Glenn Williams on second and Andrew Utting on first, the officiating gaffe almost certainly cost Australia two runs, and led directly to the ejection of Deeble and Elliott with Cuba holding a 2-0 lead.

A bemused Deeble attempted to dispute the decision with Dominican Republic leftfield umpire Pedro Gutierrez who, he was informed, didn't speak English. So when asked why Gutierrez tossed him from the game, American second base umpire Gustavo Rodriguez apparently told Deeble "you did something with your eyes."

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"There were six umpires out there and I could see it from the dugout," Deeble said. "You've got to think if we weren't in the game, we were damn close. I don't even know what he's ejected me for. It was a joke. There wasn't even one cuss word.

"I was trying to explain to the guy that the ball hit the wall and he ejected me. In a gold medal game, that's ridiculous. The IBAF need to do something about it. There were no interpreters there. It's a disgrace.

"I also believe people should stop being intimidated by the Cubans. Twenty years on and we're still being intimidated by them. When's someone going to stand up."

That absurd scenario highlighted a trying night for the Australians, who nonetheless secured the nation's first ever Olympic baseball medal - an astonishing feat, considering the absence of a professional national league.

On several occasions, the Australians had prime run-scoring opportunities but were unable to convert. Brendan Kingman was struck out looking with the bases loaded in the fifth. And following back-to-back singles to Gavin Fingleson and Brett Ronenberg in the ninth, Nilsson's blast to deep centre field fell millimetres short of clearing the wall, all but ensuring defeat.

The Cubans were led by Frederich Cepeda's two-run home run off starting pitcher John Stephens and, later two-run hits from Eriel Sanchez and Eduardo Paret. Additionally, relief pitcher Adiel Palma - the starting pitcher against Canada the previous evening - proved devastating throughout the middle innings.

Palma was the winning pitcher in Australia's opening round 4-1 loss to the Cubans.

The gold medal will no doubt prove uplifting for the baseball-crazed residents of Havana, still battling the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Charlie a fortnight ago. For the Australians, a silver medal still defied the expectations of most baseball insiders, while providing many younger minor league players with a possible platform to ascend to the majors.