Millions of Americans have discovered a new ``national pastime'' this summer - congressional hearings, notably the ones aimed at unraveling contragate. But baseball goes on too, not only in the major leagues but at the Pan American Games as well. A contest that drew special attention pitted Nicaragua against the United States in real hardball.
The ceremonial first pitch was thrown out by a member of the local organizing committee, not Ollie North, who undoubtedly would have been appalled to find Nicaragua the designated ``home team.''
Nicaragua, which edged the US for the silver medal at the 1983 Pan Am Games, was not at full strength this time. Some of its better players are involved in fighting the contras. Even so, the baseball-loving Nicaraguans hoped for the best. ``We are a threat to the United Sates and Cuba, and that threat is baseball,'' said President Daniel Ortega as the team left home.
Bianca Jagger, a Nicaraguan native and the ex-wife of rock star Mick Jagger, even showed up, working for CBS Sports.
The game quickly turned into a rout, however, with the US taking a 10-0 first-inning lead en route to an 18-0 victory. It was the third straight win for the US, which meets Cuba's world champions tomorrow in what figures as the key game.
Fraser, the architect of a highly successful program at the University of Miami (Fla.), has the US playing an aggressive, show-no-mercy brand of ball.
When asked if he were concerned that the 18-0 spanking of Nicaragua might appear to be rubbing it in, he replied, ``If I could have scored 25 runs, I would have. We play only nine games here. That's our season. We cannot afford to let up ...''
The US has only won the Pan Am baseball gold once, in 1967. So when Fraser was asked to take over, he agreed only if he could do it his way. Among other things, that meant the players would play every inning as though it were their last, or receive a tongue-lashing.
In fact, his squad was berated right before the Nicaragua game for squandering much of a 9-0 lead in a 14-7 win over Venezuela. ``We beat that ball club twice in the same game, but you should only have to do it once,'' Fraser said.
And indeed the US relentlessly took it to the overmatched Nicaraguans, who collected only four hits off the remarkable one-handed US starter, Jim Abbott, and reliever Cris Carpenter.
The Americans, meanwhile, had a field day at the plate, especially first baseman Tino Martinez, who drove in five runs in two first-inning turns at bat to add to his 8 RBIs in a pair of previous games.
After the shellacking, Nicaraguan coach Argelio Cordova was summoned to the media trailer for his remarks.
Clearly his sense of humor was intact, for when he looked into the sea of faces eager to report on the political import of this game, he said through a translator, ``I didn't know I was such a popular guy.''
He compared his team's effort to that of a boxer who doesn't get warmed up quickly enough to ward off the KO punch, then added philosophically: ``We lost the battle, but we haven't lost the war.''
There was no sense of belligerence in his voice, just a nonchalance common to clich'e-spewing coaches everywhere - even in politically charged Nicaragua.