It should serve as some kind of a warning to those dozens of young players now leaving Cuba annually with inflated aspirations for grabbing the next Céspedes-like or Chapman-like financial windfall. It should also be a wakeup call for all those diamond prospects in Havana and points beyond that are still fantasizing about the coveted possibilities of carving out a lasting baseball legacy by somehow making their way into the North American big leagues. The list of current Cuban League refugees now opening the 2013 season on big league rosters is hardly a very extensive one. In short, it is once again altogether obvious that some of the most talented recent “escapees” from island baseball are still finding the pathway to top-level professional baseball strewn with many unavoidable and even insurmountable pitfalls.
Top young prospects like Yasiel Puig (Los Angeles Dodgers), Jorge Soler (Chicago Cubs), and Ronnier Mustilier (New York Yankees) all enjoyed productive spring training camps and yet none were able to crack the rosters of their respective parent clubs. Mustilier batted a respectable .314 over 21 games in Florida with the Yankees, and one top New York scout even told me in Fukuoka, Japan early last month (during the WBC) that the former Santiago infielder was a likely Opening Day outfield replacement for the injured Curtis Granderson. Puig owned the hottest bat in the LA camp all spring (a .512 BA, with three long balls) before being shipped out to AA Chattanooga at month’s end. Twenty-one-year-old Soler hit only .222 during his Cubs initial trial but did get tested across 17 games and with 36 at-bats. All three showed well, but at the end of the day all were also dispatched for still another round of much-needed minor league seasoning.
A bevy of other veteran Cuban minor leaguers also once more failed to make the grade despite being offered a large dose of spring training playing time. Leslie Anderson (now 31) clubbed the ball at a .396 pace over 22 games but was beaten out by James Loney and Shelley Duncan for the two first base roster spots with Tampa Bay. Seventeen-year veteran Jose Contreras inked a minor league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates in late February, hoping for one final spin around the MLB circuit; but Contreras in the end saw no actual game action in the Pirates’ Bradenton camp. Twenty-nine-year-old former Habana Province outfielder Juan Carlos Linares batted over .300 for the second time in three spring trials with Boston but also is headed back to Pawtucket and the International League for the third straight summer. Francisley Bueno (age 32) enjoyed 10 spring appearances with the Royals before yet another reassignment to the minor league camp. And the recent apprentice-league sojourns of other former Cuban prospects like Jose Julio Ruiz, Yadel Marti and Bárbaro Canizares have all recently ended either in total limbo or with semi-permanent lodgings in the AAA summer-season Mexican League.
Opening Day MLB rosters for 2013 contain exactly 13 Cuban-born ballplayers, eleven of them actually refugees from the Cuban League and thus legitimately classified as island-trained ball-playing athletes. Céspedes and Chapman will again be expected to enjoy high-prolife headliner seasons with Oakland and Cincinnati, while American Leaguers Alexei Ramírez, Dayan Viciedo, Kendry Morales (now with Seattle), Yunel Escobar and relative newcomer Adieny Hechavarria (moving from Toronto to Miami) will likely all be starters at least at the season’s outset. After a pair of trials with the Texas Rangers, Leonys Martin seemingly has now finally nailed down the Texas starting centerfield post (along with the top-dollar bonanza contract attached to such an assignment); and it looks like highly touted José Iglesias will finally get his shot (after a brief apprenticeship in Pawtucket) as the everyday Boston shortstop. But despite this renewal of moderate Cuban big league presence, the all-time list of island major leaguers will obviously remain frozen at 169 at least until partway into the current season.
Cubans on April 2013 Opening Day MLB Rosters
(13 Cuban players ranked here by current 2013 MLB Salaries; # = did not play in Cuban League)
Pitchers in Boldface
Yoennis Céspedes, OF (Oakland Athletics) $8,500,000 (MLB Debut: March 28, 2012)
Alexei Ramírez, SS (Chicago White Sox) $7,000,000 (MLB Debut: March 31, 2008)
Kendry Morales, DH (Seattle Mariners) $5,250,000 (MLB Debut: May 23, 2006)
Yunel Escobar, SS (Tampa Bay Rays) $5,000,000 (MLB Debut: June 2, 2007)
Aroldis Chapman, LHP (Cincinnati Reds) $4,835,772 (MLB Debut: August 31, 2010)
Leonys Martin, OF (Texas Rangers) $3,250,000 (MLB Debut: September 2, 2011)
Dayan Viciedo, OF (Chicago White Sox) $2,800,000 (MLB Debut: June 20, 2010)
José Iglesias, SS (Boston Red Sox) $2,062,500 (MLB Debut: May 8, 2011)
Adieny Hechavarria, INF (Miami Marlins) $1,750,000 (MLB Debut: August 4, 2012)
#Yonder Alonso, INF (San Diego Padres) $1,120,000 (MLB Debut: September 1, 2010)
Yunieski Betancourt, SS (Milwaukee Brewers) $900,000 (MLB Debut: July 8, 2005)
#Branyan Peña, C (Detroit Tigers) $875,000 (MLB Debut: May 23, 2005)
Raúl Valdés, LHP (Philadelphia Phillies) $505,000 (MLB Debut: April 11, 2010)
It is true that former Cuban Leaguers at the moment edge out the imported Japanese Leaguers by the slimmest of margins. The two leagues each boast 11 alumni in the big time on Opening Day, but the presence of two additional Cubans (Branyan Peña and Yonder Alonso) – both island-born but Miami-raised and trained – tips the scale ever-so-slightly in Cuba’s favor. A full dozen MLB clubs currently employ native Cubans (the Chicago White Sox boast a pair) while the Japanese Leaguers are spread among nine different teams. The most notable difference, however, is that the Cuban list contains only a pair of pitchers (Chapman and Raúl Valdés) while eight of the eleven Japanese imports happen to be hurlers. (The latter fact is yet another evidence that Japan owns a pitchers’ league while Cuba remains a hitters’ paradise.)
Japanese on April 2013 Opening Day MLB Rosters
(11 Japanese players ranked here by 2013 MLB Salaries)
Non-pitchers in Boldface
Hiroki Kuroda, RHP (New York Yankees) $15,000,000 (Japanese League Team: Hiroshima Carp)
Yu Darvish, RHP (Texas Rangers) $9,500,000 (Japanese League Team: Nippon-Ham Fighters)
Ichiro Suzuki, OF (New York Yankees) $6,500,000 (Japanese League Team: Orix Blue Wave)
Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP (Seattle Mariners) $6,500,000 (Japanese League Team: Kintetsu Buffaloes)
Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP (Chicago Cubs) $4,500,000 (Japanese League Team: Hanshin Tigers)
Koji Uehara, RHP (Boston Red Sox) $4,250,000 (Japanese League Team: Yomiuri Giants)
Tsuyoshi Wada, LHP (Baltimore Orioles) $4,200,000 (Japanese League Team: Softbank Hawks)
Hiroyuki Nakajima, SS (Oakland Athletics) $2,875,000 (Japanese League Team: Seibu Lions)
Norichika Aoki, OF (Milwaukee Brewers) $1,712,500 (Japanese League Team: Yakult Swallows)
Hisanori Takahashi, LHP (Chicago Cubs) $1,000,000 (Japanese League Team: Yomiuri Giants)
Junici Tazawa, RHP (Boston Red Sox) $815,000 (Japanese League Team: None)
Only twice in the past decade has an ex-Cuban Leaguer made his MLB debut on Opening Day, and that list has not been expanded this spring. Yoennis Céspedes pulled the trick last March, and before that we have to go back to 2003 and José Contreras to find a parallel occurrence. But the inventory of Cuban big leaguers is almost certain to grow early in the current season, perhaps before the month of April is out. The most likely candidates are Mustilier, Soler, or perhaps even Leslie Anderson (who might at long last get at least a “cup-of-coffee” taste of his long-coveted big league dream). Other longshots to break through this spring might be pitcher Noel Arguelles with Kansas City or outfielder Yasiel Puig with the Dodgers. It is almost certain that slugger Mustilier and five-tool prospect Puig will both remain on the scene for lengthy big league tenures before too many more months have passed us by.
Nonetheless, for all the recent North American media hype about Cuban imports, the actual number of islanders reaching baseball’s highest level has remained relatively stable. A handful of top prospects like José Julio Ruíz, Yasser Gómez, Yadel Martí, Leslie Anderson and Juan Carlos Linares, among others, have never managed to work their way out of AA-level or AAA-level status. Until the imagined day when a seemingly endless political standoff between Washington and Havana finally grinds to an inevitable halt – with the an equally inevitable collapse of the Cuban League as we have now known it for over half a century – there is little reason to expect that the flow of Cubans into the big leagues will alter significantly from its current slow trickle to anything like a long-desired (at least for some) dam-bursting flood.
The 2013 season will almost certainly mark the end of the road for two of the most successful Cuban big league imports from the current generation. The brief Contreras comeback effort with Pittsburgh’s Pirates seems to have met with little success and it is reasonable to assume that the occasionally brilliant decade-long pro sojourn of the one-time Cuban national team ace has now finally run its course. After splitting last season between Atlanta and Milwaukee, two-decade big league veteran Liván Hernández has also been widely rumored to be seeking yet another shot at extending his fading career. But no teams were willing to extend a contract offer as spring training came and went. With his four wins last summer Liván was finally able to push his career mark back over the break-even level at 178-177) and he has slowly climbed the ladder to a rank among the most successful Cuban big league hurlers from either the pre-revolution or post-revolution eras. Among his countrymen, only Luis Tiant (3,486) pitched more big league innings than Liván (3,189); again only Tiant can boast more starts (484 to 474); Liván (355) ranks third on the all-time list in pitching decisions (behind Tiant with 401 and Dolf Luque with 373); and no Cuban big league hurler can match Liván’s 177 defeats. But the ledger will now apparently end here, since there seems little likelihood that Liván Hernández at age 38 will make it back on the scene for a remarkable eighteenth major league campaign.
Note:1 There were two interesting side notes regarding Cuban players on Opening Day of the 2013 big league season. Padres first sacker Yonder Alfonso blasted a sixth inning solo shot off Mets left-hander Jon Niese in New York to become the first Cuban-born big leaguer in recent memory to homer in his team’s season’s opener (Yoennis Céspedes homered in Game 2 for Oakland one year ago). Also light-sticking shortstop José Iglesias collected three singles at Yankee Stadium during Boston’s inaugural game. Since such feats are not well documented, it is not clear when and if any Cuban-born big leaguer earlier achieved either an Opening Day round tripper or a season-opening three-hit performance. If one of my readers has an answer to this particular piece of Opening Day baseball trivia I would most certainly welcome the details.
Note 2: Ray Otero has supplied the answer concerning Cuban-natives homering on Opening Day and it turns out that it has happened more recently than I thought. Kendry Morales had a dinger in the Los Angeles Angles 6-3 victory over Minnesota on Opening Day (April 5) 2010, only three years back. So I stand corrected here.
For the complete historical listing of Cuba’s 169 major leaguers (1871-2013) see the complete version of this article posted on www.BaseballdeCuba.com (http://www.baseballdecuba.com/newsite/newsContainer.asp?id=3156)
My recent reminiscences (on my Facebook page) regarding the remarkable 1952 season of the recently deceased Virgil “Fire” Trucks drew some interesting responses that perhaps merit repeating here (for those of you who don’t follow me on Facebook). One of my childhood favorites, Trucks pitched a pair of no-hit, no-run games for the Detroit Tigers during the 1952 American League season; the first came on May 15 versus the Washington Senators and the second on August 25 against the New York Yankees (both by 1-0 scores). The truly remarkable feat here is that the Detroit Tigers managed to lose 104 games that season and Trucks posted a mere 5-19 record for the campaign. This raises the intriguing question: what other pitcher in baseball history (chose your league and era) can boast 40% of his season’s victories as no-hit masterpieces?
Moving on to only slightly greener pastures the following season (splitting the year between the St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox), Trucks posted a 20-10 mark and finished fifth in the league’s MVP balloting. Thus we have a double whammy of true oddities. In 1952 Fire Trucks became only the third pitcher in MLB history to claim two no-hitters in the same campaign (preceded by Johnny Vander Meer and Allie Reynolds); there has since been one more to join the club (Nolan Ryan in 1973). Jim Maloney of Cincinnati also tossed a pair of masterpieces in 1965 but both were extra-inning affairs and one was a loss in which he surrendered a home run in the eleventh frame; by current MLB rules that first game was not therefore “officially” a No-No. Roy Halladay also authored a pair of gems in 2010 with the Philadelphia Phillies but one was a post-season affair. The second oddity for Trucks was that in 1953 he became one of the very few hurlers ever traded in the middle of a 20-win season.
The 40% No-No’s/wins ratio of Virgil Trucks was nearly matched only one season later by St. Louis Browns teammate Bobo Holloman, who managed to reach perfection in his first-ever big league start (May 6, 1953 versus the Philadelphia Athletics). Holloman lasted a single season in the “Bigs” and won but three total games. His ratio is therefore 33% and it perhaps tops Trucks only in the sense that his tally was one No-No versus three victories for an entire big league career.
But when it comes to such oddities we repeatedly have to turn to the post-1962 Cuban League. There in 1966 right-hander Aquino Abreu (laboring for the Centrales ball club) matched Johnny Vander Meer with consecutive gems in January 16 and January 25. Abreu actually did Vander Meer one better since in the outing immediately preceding his two gems he authored a 20-inning complete game (which he actually managed to lose, but only after 19.1 innings of unparalleled shutout hurling). No big leaguers has ever tossed 19-plus scoreless inning in a single game. And Abreu also outstripped both Trucks and Holloman since his record for that 1966 season (his team played only 63 games) was a mere 3-2. For Abreu that year his no-hitters comprised 66% of his total victories!
For the complete story of Aquino Abreu – one of baseball’s most remarkable unknown figures – the reader can turn to my SABR Biography Project essay found on-line at: http://mlb.mlb.com/cutfour/#contentId=43280748
And then there is one more interesting footnote to the Virgil Trucks saga – this one more directly related to his passing earlier this week at the remarkable age of 95. In an essay recently posted on MLB.com, historian Chris Jaffe is quoted as pointing out that the single remaining living ball player (now that Trucks is gone) to “play” against the Chicago Cubs in a World Series is 89-year old former Tigers outfielder Ed Mierkowicz. The point of Jaffe’s observation (http://mlb.mlb.com/cutfour/#contentId=43280748) is of course to yet again underscore the “dead horse” involving the length of time since the last Fall Classic staged in Chicago’s North End.
And the observation is correct enough, but only because of a semantic technicality involving the verb “played”. There was another still-very-much-alive member of that 1945 Detroit Tigers World Series entrant who was indeed on the club’s active World Series roster; unfortunately, however, he never made it out of the bull pen and into the Detroit lineup. The great irony here is that this other player was 18-year-old rookie phenomenon Billy Pierce, who would eventually make three appearances the next time the Windy City hosted a World Series in 1959 (of course with the Go-Go White Sox and not the downtrodden Cubbies).
The World Baseball Classic has now crowned a novel champion, with the Dominican Republic recovering from its 2009 first-round ouster to become the first country to sweep through the WBC field undefeated. Japan has finally relinquished its iron grip on the MLB Classic title for the first time in the brief three-session span of the tournament. And Cuba, despite the stark disappointment of not reach the final round in San Francisco, has surprisingly also held onto its top world ranking and actually stretched its slim lead over the runner-up Americans by 21 points. These are the realities reflected in the latest 2013 (Post-WBC) men’s world baseball rankings released this morning on the official website of the IBAF (International Baseball Federation), the sport’s ruling international body.
While few Americans pay any heed to these IBAF polls (or are even aware of their existence), the bi-yearly rankings have been long trumpeted by the Cuban Baseball Federation as a badge of honor and as one important measure of the successes of an exclusively domestic (no foreign players) and non-capitalist baseball system. It was widely speculated that by failing to reach the exclusive “final four” group in this year’s Classic Cuba would finally be toppled from its long-held top slot and thus suffer a double-whammy to its slipping international baseball prestige. Such a tumble might well have been the case had the MLB-packed USA lineup not stumbled at the identical juncture in the tournament, also failing to get out of the WBC second round for the second time in three tries. A Cuban slip in the polls might also have been the result had Japan captured a third crown in San Francisco, or had it been Chinese Taipei and not The Netherlands that ambushed the Cuban forces in Tokyo. What finally played in the islander’s favor was the fact that three countries advancing to the finals all came from much further down the ladder in last fall’s most recent IBAF polling.
The current IBAF tally has now replaced the points earned at the 2009 WBC with those amassed from this year’s third edition. The biggest gainers were the Dominicans under manager Tony Peña who substituted the 55.02 points earned via the 2009 first-round debacle with 300.00 points won as this year’s champions. The upshot was a huge leap from thirteenth to seventh – the country’s first appearance in the Top Ten since polling began back in 2008. WBC III sub-champion Puerto Rico also bounced upward from twelfth to eighth, while The Netherlands (with a first Classic final-round appearance) and Chinese Taipei (winner of the November 2012 Asian WBC Qualifier) both edged into the prestigious Top Five for the first time.
Other noteworthy team movements in the recent poll involved Italy, South Korea and Brazil. The latter country finally cracked the Top 20 (despite a first-round WBC ouster) on the strength of a November victory in the Caribbean Classic Qualifier. A perennial fixture near the top of the rankings (fourth last time and third a year earlier), the Koreans tumbled five slots after failing to make it out of WBC Pool B in Taichung. And despite a dramatic underdog showing by the game Italians that lifted the surprising Europeans into this year’s WBC second round, nonetheless Italy actually slipped a few notches in stature (and was bumped out of the Top Ten) largely because both the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans charged past them by reaching the San Francisco finals.
Post-Classic IBAF World Rankings (March 2013)
Country – 2013 Points – 2012 Rank (Points)
1. Cuba – 772.98 – 1 (766.01) same
2. USA – 719.27 – 2 (733.25) same
3. Japan – 544.42 – 3 (564.42) same
4. Chinese Taipei – 541.79 – 8 (384.79) up 4 slots
5. The Netherlands – 497.76 – 6 (476.76) up 1 slot
6. Canada – 492.02 – 5 (485.0) down 1 slot)
7. Dominican Republic – 449.18 – 13 (204.20) up 6 slots)
8. Puerto Rico – 361.25 – 9 (241.73) up 1 slot
9. South Korea – 333.22 – 4 (488.20) down 5 slots
10. Venezuela – 318.13 – 7 (459.63) down 3 slots
11. Italy – 235.80 – 11 (214.80) same
12. Mexico – 187.95 – 10 (231.48) down 2 slots
13. Australia – 183.95 – 12 (211.97) down 1 slot
14. Panama – 128.97 – 15 (109.74) up one slot
15. Nicaragua – 125.01 – 14 (140.01) down 1 slot
16. Spain – 122.53 – 16 (109.51) same
17. Germany – 96.83 – 17 (96.83) same
18. Brazil – 96.21 – Not in Top 20
19. Colombia – 86.25 – 20 (58.75) up 1 slot
20. China – 80.50 – 18 (79.48) down 2 slots
While both the Cubans and Americans escaped further loss of prestige by hanging on to the top IBAF slots, those leads now stand very much in jeopardy. The next poll will be released in mid-fall, and for that next ranking all tournament results from 2009 will be scrubbed. The upshot is that both Cuba and the USA (finalists in the 2009 World Cup in Europe) will see 250 points erased from their current totals, enough of a loss to likely lift Japan into the driver’s seat for the first time. The downside at the moment for Cuba is that no top level (and thus potential point-producing) tournament events remain on this year’s IBAF calendar.
The formulas for determining these rankings are quite complex since they involve not only a given team’s finish in a sanctioned event, but also a multiplier factor based on the prestige of an individual tournament and the quality (rankings) of the various countries entered in that particular event. Cuba’s increased margin over the Americans in this latest rankings came about largely because last fall’s Asian tour (Thunder Series with the Taiwan national squad and Samurai Japan competitions with the Nippon all-star squad) were both IBAF sanctioned point-earning events. For a detailed explanation of how this system actually works one should turn to the IBAF website found at http://www.ibaf.org.
The third edition of the World Baseball Classic – MLB’s slowly-growing attempt at providing a diamond equivalent for FIFA’s celebrated soccer World Cup – is now in the history books. The cheering and speculation and endless debate are now all put to rest in the wake of the most polished, successful and entertaining WBC to date; and perhaps it is now time for some final thoughts and perspectives from a writer who has witnessed each of Team Cuba’s twenty Classic games from a front row press box seat. For the second consecutive time millions of Cuban fans were deeply disappointed by the failure of the current Red Machine squad to duplicate the miracle run of 2006 and thus reach the tournament’s final round. That stinging disappointment was perhaps especially bitter this time around since the final crucial second-round setback came not at the hands of the celebrated Japanese but rather against the undervalued Dutch – a rival that Cuban squads once beat up with almost boring regularity.
This dismay at the final Cuban loss in Tokyo and the consequent failure to reach San Francisco is perhaps understandable enough, but it also serves to obscure two essential facts surrounding the islanders’ WBC resume: first and foremost, that this year’s ouster came at the hands of a big-league-studded Dutch roster the equal of any Japanese squads from earlier Classics, and secondly that this year’s Cuban edition played far better in Fukuoka and Tokyo than did the earlier Cuban clubs sent to San Juan, Mexico City and San Diego. In March 2009 Cuba was never close in its pair of round-two defeats at the hands of superior Nippon pitching. This time both games with the Dutch might have gone either way in the end; both were lost on late-inning home runs served up in each case by a single bad offering from two of Cuba’s most reliable bullpen aces.
I have been accused time and again by my critics in Havana and Miami of overhyping Cuba’s Classic teams simply because of what some see as my blind love for Cuban baseball. The irony here, of course, is that it is the same blind love that also repeatedly keeps Cuban partisans back in Havana and across the rest of the island from themselves seeing their favorites objectively; it is their own provincial blindness that thus leads to the full deluge of criticisms and second guessing that is always flowing from Cuba’s enthusiastic population of “eleven-million managers” back home. But one advantage I hold over those who watch the games only on television and thus from afar is the rare privilege of sitting game after game alongside members of the international baseball press and also with the large community of major league scouts (many of them former big league or minor league players); both camps regularly and openly share their far more expert opinions with me about what they see in the way of plusses and minuses from the current Cuban teams performing on the field. It is those insights from other knowledge experts that often sustain and underpin my own carefully formed (and not at all emotionally charged) assessments.
One opinion was nearly universal among big league scouts sent to Japan and it was that Cuba had the most talented roster of any of the four clubs in Fukuoka or any of the four that reached Tokyo. Of the individual players on display in the Tokyo Dome two weeks ago none stirred more interest among pro scouts than Yasmani Tomás, José Fernández, José Dariel Abreu, Bárbaro Arruebarruena, Guillermo Heredia and (although he saw little action) 19-year-old Andy Ibáñez. More than three dozen bird dogs expressed the strong opinion that the Cuban squad should have reached San Francisco and in fact would likely have fared far better in California than either Japan or The Netherlands.
Then why did Cuba lose its final vital match? Was it a subpar fielding performance by third sacker Yulieski Gourriel that held the key to last-minute ninth-inning defeat, was it faulty managerial tactics by chaotic skipper Victor Mesa who stumbled in juggling his bullpen corps, was it one fatal pitch from a tired Norberto González with only four outs remaining before ultimate victory – was it even more likely the clutch hitting of Dutch big leaguers Jonathan Schoop and Andrelton Simmons? Or was it simply that the baseball often bounces in odd ways and (especially in such short pressure-packed tournaments) the best club does not always win out night after night. These are points that can be debated endlessly and I don’t claim to have any expert answers here, or any insights more valid than those of many ill-informed debaters in Havana’s Central Park. Baseball is an unpredictable game and victory and defeat are always settled “en el terreno” (a favorite Cuban expression) and never in the pages of journalistic analysis.
I fully admit that Cuba’s final game loss in the Tokyo Dome was somewhat unexpected and largely disappointing. But I totally reject the idea that one such loss represents a failure of Cuba’s current baseball system, or stands as a signal (according to so many) that Cuban baseball now has to be completely revamped and restructured. If Cuba’s three WBC performances signal some flaw in the Cuban League, than what do Cuban fans make of the apparent sad state of the national pastime in the United States – three American squads crammed with big league all-stars like Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodríguez, David Wright, R.A. Dickey and so many more – have amassed an overall Classic record far inferior to the one Cuba boasts. The vaunted Americans have played at a mere .500 clip in their three outings, have reached the final round the same number of times as the Cubans, were eliminated at the same level as Team Cuban this time around, and have failed to match Cuba’s one trip to the tournament’s gold medal game. But is this because of a total collapse of American baseball? Do we hear anyone screaming that because of American WBC failures we should now be considering a total revamping in the structure of major league baseball?
Yes, the object of any tournament is to reach the finals and ultimate to walk away as champions. But there is never only one champion and 15 other complete failures. There are many measures of success and many proud performances. Let’s step back for a moment and look at the total record. Of the 18 national teams that have performed in the three editions of the Classic there are five who have consistently performed extremely well and those five are (despite some temporary dips along the way over the years) Japan, Korea, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and, yes, certainly Cuba. These are the five that have each reached the final championship game on at least one occasion and also the five who have posted overall winning percentages above the .600 mark – a degree of success that usually represents championship standing in the big leagues. Japan is the only club to win the title twice, Korea is the only other team to reach multiple finals, and the Dominicans are the only squad (this year) ever to roll through the tournament field undefeated. Look at the list of three-year records (below) and one finds that Cuba boasts the fourth best winning percentage – trailing only the Dominicans, Koreans, and Japanese and slightly edging out this year’s sub-champions from Puerto Rico. The proud baseball nations of Venezuela (perhaps today’s richest big league talent font) and the United States (boaster of a false claim that the sport is its own exclusive national pastime) are nowhere to be found of this list.
True the Cuban winning percentage of .650 pales beside an overall international mark of better than .900 in international matches between 1962 and 2005 (the year before the first Classic finally opened top international tournaments to major leaguers). But come on folks, this is comparing platens to pickles – Cuba once won nine of every ten matches because it was squaring off with college ball clubs and industrial league all-stars and not with major leaguers. But to win 13 of 20 games against seasoned pros – to defeat Albert Pujols and company in 2006 in the semis, or even to ease past the crack Japanese League all-star squad this year in Fukuoka – this is a bat rack of a far different color.
A notch below the big five from Japan, Korea, Dominicana, Puerto Rico and Cuba we find the threesome of Venezuela, The Netherlands, and Team USA – the only other trio to ever reach the tournament’s final four. Of this group only the Venezuelans boast an overall ledger on the upside of the breakeven mark. Even with their run past Cuba and into San Francisco this time around, the Dutch finished at a mere 4 and 4 ledger during the 2013 Classic; Cuba’s record this year was 4-2. And this leads to another yardstick. How many countries have posted a winning record in all three Classic outings? Only four: Japan (5-3, 7-2, 5-2), Korea (6-1, 6-3, 2-1), Puerto Rico (4-2, 4-2. 5-4) and Cuba (5-3, 4-2, 4-2). Will someone please explain to me how this exclusive fraternity of winners might demonstrate in any fashion that Cuba’s current baseball is incapable of remaining competitive in the World Baseball Classic.
Composite Records for All Classic Teams
Teams Reaching Finals
(1) Dominican Republic (Champion 2013) Record: 14-4 (.777 Pct.)
(2) Korea (Sub-Champion 2009) Record: 14-5 (.737 Pct.)
(3) Japan (Champion 2006, 2009) Record: 17-7 (.708 Pct.)
(4) Cuba (Sub-Champion 2006) Record: 13-7 (.650 Pct.)
(5) Puerto Rico (Sub-Champion 2013) Record: 13-8 (.619 Pct.)
Additional Teams Reaching Semifinals
Venezuela (2009) Record: 10-7 (.588 Pct.)
USA (2009) Record: 10-10 (.500 Pct.)
The Netherlands (2013) Record: 7-10 (.412 Pct.)
Teams Reaching Second Round Only
Mexico (2006, 2009) Record: 6-9 (.400 Pct.)
Italy (2013) Record: 4-7 (.364 Pct.)
Chinese Taipei (2013) Record: 3-7 (.300 Pct.)
Teams Playing in First Round Only
Canada (2006, 2009, 2013) Record: 3-5 (.375 Pct.)
China (2006, 2009, 2013) Record: 2-7 (.222 Pct.)
Australia (2006, 2009, 2013) Record: 1-8 (.111 Pct.)
Teams Claiming No Victories
South Africa (2006, 2009) Record: 0-5 (.000 Pct.)
Panama (2006, 2009) Record: 0-5 (.000 Pct.)
Brazil (2013) Record: 0-3 (.000 Pct.)
Spain (2013) Record: 0-3 (.000 Pct.)
A devoted Cuban fan from Miami posted an observation on my Facebook page last night that captured the sentiments of many – that Cuba needs to start using its exiled big league players (Céspedes, Chapman, Alexei Ramírez, Escobar, Maya, Liván etc.) if it ever hopes to have success in the Classic. I reject this idea totally. I have already commented in an earlier column on the devastatingly negative effect such a situation would have for the top players remaining in Cuba. But there are other reasons for rejecting such a solution. Playing with only its native domestic leaguers, Cuba is already (as shown above) one of the four most successful teams in the brief three-year WBC history. The earlier Cuban Classic teams that did feature Céspedes, Ramírez, Maya and Chapman – plus current minor leaguers like Leonys Martin and Leslie Anderson – were debatably not as strong as this year’s Cuban squad. Scouts in Tokyo over and again voiced the solid opinion that there were more legitimate big league prospects – especially Tomás, Fernández, Abreu and Ibáñez – on this Cuban club than on either of the two previous island entrants. There are far more reasons, then, to be proud of Cuba’s Classic performances to date than there are any reasons to doubt or dismiss them. The irony here is that it was precisely the demonstrated quality and strength of this year’s domestically produced Cuban League roster that lead to so much disappointment and letdown when the team was ousted before reaching its final goal. Lament the loss, I say, but don’t lament the approach.
On Saturday night in Artemisa – a small provincial capital to the west of Havana – the Cuban baseball community sadly lost one of its top stars of the past decade. Jovial and talented Artemisa right-handed pitcher Yadier Pedroso was killed when the car in which he was riding with two friends collided with a cargo truck at approximately 10:30 pm. Details are slim but it is known that all three occupants of the automobile perished; earliest reports do not specify who was actually driving the vehicle. The collision, which occurred at a crossroads known as Magna Central on the rural highway leading into the provincial capital of Artemisa, came only two days after the Cuban national team had returned home from the World Baseball Classic event in Japan. An ace starter with the Cuban League Artemisa Cazadores (“Hunters”) ball club, Pedroso’s oversized portrait is one of four that currently hang from the light towers in Artemisa’s picturesque 26 de Julio ballpark (the other three belonging to teammates and one-time fellow national team members Yulieski González, Jonder Martínez and Miguel Lahera). A veteran of eight-plus National Series seasons, Yadier Pedroso would have turned 27 in June of this year.
Cuban baseball boasts a rich and glorious history, but one of its less welcomed legacies is the ironic concurrence of devastating fatal automobile accidents that have cut short in mid-stream several of the island’s most lustrous post-revolution baseball careers. José Antonio Huelga might have been the greatest post-revolution pitcher ever had his life not been snuffed out after only seven league campaigns; Huelga’s demise occurred on July 4, 1974, on a highway near Mariel, a dozen miles west of Havana. José Huelga remains Cuba’s career ERA leader (1.50) and the league stadium in his hometown of Sancti Spíritus – ironically the site of next weekend’s schedule league All-Star Game – today bears his name. Hard-throwing left-hander Santiago “Changa” Mederos rang up league-record strikeout totals (since eclipsed by Maels Rodríguez) in both the 1969 and 1970 seasons; ten years later (December 15, 1979), at the outset of his fifteenth league outing, Mederos also perished in a spectacular auto crash along a desolate country roadway only miles outside the capital city. The long-time Sports City Havana ball park that served for league play until last season when the Havana Metros ball club was finally abandoned is today known as Changa Mederos Stadium. In December 2000, only weeks after the opening of a new league season, Camagüey outfielder Miguel Caldés was similarly killed in his home city by a wreck that also injured several of his Camagüey teammates. Caldés had been the 1995 league home run champion and also the starting right fielder on the 1996 gold medal team at the Atlanta Olympics. Long-time national team ace Norge Vera also saw his lengthy career terminated by a crash last year in Santiago, although Vera was fortunate to survive the incident. Now Pedroso’s name has been added to this list of inexplicable Cuban League highway tragedies.
Yadier Pedroso enjoyed a substantial if truncated Cuban League career, highlighted by an ERA championship in 2009, the same year his Habana Province team claimed its only National Series title. One of the several renowned starters on a now-defunct Habana Province Cowboys club that in the late 2000s featured five national team pitching stalwarts (Pedroso, Jonder Martínez, Yulieski González, Miguel Lahera and Angel García), Yadier flashed brilliance in both the 2009 and 2010 post-season playoffs, winning two playoff games both years and not allowing a single run over his 14 innings of work on the latter occasion. He also paced the circuit in strikeouts last season (2012) while laboring for tail-ender Artemisa (one of two new league teams established with the breakup of Habana Province); his 128 Ks over 129 innings actually left him tied with Odrisamer Despaigne (Industriales), but the latter hurler toiled in the playoffs and thus posted both more games and more innings than Pedroso. Yadier’s final career 878-353 strikeouts-to-walks ratio remains one of the best in the Cuban League over the past dozen or so seasons.
Pedroso’s international presence was also substantial over the past several summers. He was one of a handful of Cuban stars to appear on multiple World Baseball Classic teams, having debuted as a mere 19-year old in the inaugural 2006 Classic, on the heels of his stellar rookie National Series season with Habana Province. The previous fall, Yadier had worn the Cuban colors for the first time during the Gold Medal triumph at the 2005 IBAF World Cup staged in The Netherlands, winning his only decision. He also performed on the 2008 silver-medal winning Beijing Olympic team (one appearance and no decisions) and the 2009 and 2011 IBAF World Cup squads. For this year’s MLB Classic event in Japan Pedroso was a last-minute roster addition due to a shoulder injury that had plagued him in the early going of the current domestic season. He was used only sparing by manager Victor Mesa, first appearing in relief in the first-round 12-0 drubbing of China in the Fukuoka Yahoo Dome; he worked 1.1 innings in relief of starter Danny Betancourt, yielding a single hit and a single walk. A second outing during round two in Tokyo was less successful. During his final career appearance Yadier worked a shaky one-third of an inning, surrendering three hits, including a two-out two-run round-tripper by big leaguer Jonathan Schoop that was in the end the game-deciding base hit.
Yadir will long be remembered by this writer for two gutsy performances in particular. The first came with the Cuba B squad in Rotterdam during the summer 2011 edition of the World Port tournament. The Cubans managed by Roger Machado had fallen into a deep hole with three early losses, yet had nonetheless managed to reach the finals largely on the strength of a brilliant eight-inning mound effort by Pedroso, highlighting a clutch 2-0 victory over the host Dutch club. In the finals only two days later, Pedroso was again called upon (this time in relief) and held an undefeated Taiwan team in check for eight more innings; Cuba finally lost the title game only in the “Schiller Rule” tie-breaker-format tenth frame when an exhausted Pedroso was unable to cleanly field a high bouncer back to the box and the deciding tally scampered home from third. The second truly memorable outing came with three late-game relief innings against Team USA during a hard-fought World Cup quarterfinal-round match in Santiago, Panama. With Cuba clinging to a late 8-6 lead in the see-saw affair, Pedroso earned the save after working the final three frames, surrendering a single run (on two hits), but striking out seven of the 11 batters faced. With his forkball as devastating as at any time in his career, Yadier struck out the side in the final dramatic inning to preserve the tense victory.
Pedroso was scheduled to return to action later this month for the second half of this year’s experimental split-form National Series season – wearing the unaccustomed uniform of the Sancti Spíritus Gallos. This year’s unique split season format will have only eight squads moving on to pennant race Stage 2. Those surviving clubs have already drafted stars from the eight eliminated squads to fill out their own rosters for the final segments of the championship chase. As the first-half league leader, Sancti Spíritus owned the final pick in last month’s nationally televised draft session, and manager Yovani Aragón was surprised to find Pedroso (the ace of last-place Artemisa) still available; the earliest picks had all featured star sluggers like Alfredo Despaigne, Alexei Bell, Joan Carlos Pedroso, William Luis Campillo, Yordan Mandulay and Ernesto Molinet. It seemed at the time of last month’s dispersal draft that the windfall selection of Yadier by the already pitching-rich Gallos was most likely enough to clinch this season’s championship banner for Sancti Spíritus. That scenario has now been severely altered.
There is a special personal sadness about this loss that impacts especially on this writer. Put bluntly and directly, Yadier Pedroso has for the past five years been a close personal friend and not merely one of the numerous Cuban ballplayers I have been privileged to write about. Last Tuesday afternoon (only hours before the team returned to Havana) I spent several hours in a Tokyo Dome hotel room shared by Freddie Cepeda and Yosvani Peraza, and Yadier was in that room with us. The four of us talked at length about the players’ collective and personal pain over once again failing in the final round-two game (similar to four years ago in San Diego) and therefore once again coming up short after such a dedicated and lengthy effort to get back into the WBC finals. At the moment that loss to the Dutch the previous evening was all consuming and it was difficult for them and for me to put the disappointing event behind us. But in the end we all agreed there was much baseball still to be played back on the island, also that baseball is still only baseball, and that life indeed would now go on. But for Yadier, tragically, it would not. And therein lies a most profound lesson.
There was much sadness spread across Cuba by a recent Monday night loss to the Dutch ball club – an on-field defeat that sabotaged a World Baseball Classic “dream” and thus robbed Team Cuba of a chance to play this weekend in San Francisco. But now the final days in Tokyo have forever taken on another far more deep and sad irony. Had this year’s WBC Cuban club managed to win that crucial final match it would have meant among other things that Yadier Pedroso and his teammates would have been safely lodged in San Francisco last night; Yadier would not have been on the highway outside Artemisa and such a promising young life would not have been snuffed out in its prime. Such are the mysterious twists and turns of the lives we all live. Once again we must all pause, and refocus, and remember that the loss last night in Artemisa was far greater and far more significant than that momentary defeat earlier in the week in Tokyo. Our prayers today can only be with Yadier, and with his family teammates. Baseball defeats sometimes linger but they eventually fade with the presence of inevitable new challenges on the field of play. But the loss suffered last night is one that will remain with some of us forever.
March 12, 2013 from Tokyo, Japan
For many it was the most devastating among a slew of painful eleventh-hour losses for recent editions of the once dominant but now somewhat tarnished Cuban national team. There have been many such defeats in recent years – the 2008 Olympic finals (versus Korea) in Beijing; the 2009 World Cup finale (USA) in Nettuno; the 2010 Pre-Mundial championship setback (with the Dominicans) in San Juan; and the final-edition 2011 World Cup gold medal loss (Netherlands) in Panama. These defeats reflect little more than the new world order of international baseball where talented but no longer untouchable Cuban teams are now forced play against some of the best young stars (and even seasoned veterans) drawn from North American professional ball clubs; the near misses do not (despite all the ceaseless wailings in the Cuban press) signal any major failings of the Cuban baseball system itself, or any catastrophic drop-off in the level of Cuban talent. This year’s Cuban Classic team showcased more top-level young prospects than any island squad of the past decade. True there was a visible shortage of normally strong Cuban pitching in the end, but the final reality is that we no longer live in 1970s or ‘80s world in which each opponent quakes and crumbles in the presence of the once unrivaled Cuban arsenal.
Both the positive and the negative here is the fact that Cuba is now the only country still playing in the Classic with only its home-grown and home-trained national talent. It is the single country to annually field an all-star squad from its domestic league that is a legitimate representative of its own special brand of national baseball. All other entrants boast a roster of players trained and honed by professional clubs in the United States or in Japan or Taiwan – some (like The Netherlands and Italy) field players from not one but several nations (players that can claim a birthright or other technical connection to the flag they briefly represent). The Dutch club that defeated Cuba twice here in Tokyo is in reality the team of the Dutch Antilles (of baseball-rich Curacao and Aruba) and has very little to do any longer with the improving but still sub-standard baseball league based each summer in the European country whose colors they wear. If the Cuban system has failed, it has failed only in its refusal to transform its national pastime into the same trans-national baseball business model designed and managed primarily to feed the economic interests of corporate MLB and its many branches (i.e. players, owners, agents and a huge support-system enterprise that peddles merchandise and memorabilia). That is to say that Cuba’s “failure” has been to not give up its special identity as an alternative and isolated baseball universe – as the home of a pure national sport employing no imported free-lane ballplayers. And for this writer at least, that is not much of a failure.
For those who grew up watching Linares and Kindelán and company win game after game played against university squads and clubs staffed largely with industrial league players, it is hard to let go of a world in which the Red Machine went unblemished year after year. Those easy victories of years gone by gave Cubans something of a false sense of pride in the stature of their native baseball. But the reality was that off the island no one paid much heed to those endless victories because they had little legitimacy in the outside world of professional baseball. Who did the Cubans beat back then with their crack squads wielding aluminum bats against 19 and 20 year old rivals?
The endless victory strings of the seventies and eighties and nineties were of course impressive enough, if only because this is a sport where no one normally wins at such a place in any level of competition. The string of Amateur World Series and later Olympic triumphs worked to establish the Cuban baseball mystique. But I have long contended that the greatest achievements of Cuba’s rich baseball heritage have come only with the victories of the past decade – no matter how much less frequent those triumphs have been. To finish second at each of the past three editions of the World Cup (IBAF tournaments showcasing both minor leaguers and former big leaguers) has held far more merit than all the first place banners gained in the “amateur” era editions of that tournament. And now to have won 13 of 20 total games in the three prestigious MLB Classics – the closest thing we have ever had to a true baseball world championship – is more remarkable still
This is all not to say that last night was not terribly disappointing. But disappointment does not have to signal total disaster. Monday night’s game was particularly heart wrenching since it was filled with so many lost opportunities, gut-tightening comebacks and collapses, and botched managerial tactics on the part of both teams. Much has been and will be made of some of Victor’s tactical moves. But many were not as foolish has they may have looked from afar. And it should be noted that the Dutch skipper (Hensley Meulens) also blundered on several occasions. He left several of his pitchers in the game too long, but yet in the end he escaped in the end as much by luck as anything else (and by the inevitable late-inning attrition in Cuban pitching).
Cuba fell behind early in the finale against the Dutch, just as they had in the Friday opener with the same rapidly improving Orange squad. But this time they fought back gamely on three different occasions (twice to tie and once to assume a brief eighth-inning lead) before running out of gas – and of quality pitching arms – in the final two disastrous innings. If Victor made a tactical mistake it was probably that he left Norberto in the game for one inning or at least one batter too long. It might have been more logical (with two down in the eighth and the tying tally at the plate) to bring in a veteran right-hander like Ismel Jiménez to face potent young big-leaguer Andrelton Simmons. Yet had Simmons popped out rather than stroking a game-tying two-run blast into the left field seats to shift the game’s momentum, or if Abreu or Cepeda had made contact in the fateful ninth when Cuba seemed on the verge of yet a fourth comeback (Gourriel standing on third with the potential game winner) we would all today be singing a very different tune about Mesa’s bold tactical maneuvers.
The loss was indeed a major setback on a couple of different accounts. There was, of course, a blown opportunity once more to send major shock waves throughout organized baseball by yet again reaching the final round and squaring off with big name major league professional stars in San Francisco. The result in Tokyo now also means a definite loss of the IBAF top world ranking held onto for so long despite the spate of recent second-place finishes in major international events. If the Americans reach the final round alongside Japan, both countries will surge ahead of the Cubans in the next IBAF polling. While most North American or Asian fans (focused on their own professional league play) play lead heed to the IBAF semi-annual world standing, the Cuban Federation has long celebrated those rankings as a major justification for its approach to world tournament play. That will now have to change. And finally, the bitter loss will also mean that Cuban fans will again have to endure a very long wait before another major opportunity presents itself – there is nothing on the immediate horizon to rebuild Cuban prestige more substantial than the 2015 Pan American Games penciled in for Toronto. There is still much exciting baseball now to be played back in Cuba; a tense National Series with a controversial experimental format will resume its pennant chase in another two weeks. But there are no further big-time international tournaments lying immediately around the corner that might quickly resurrect national baseball pride or reaffirm the entrenched Cuban approach to world tournament play.
But it is all too easy to overlook all the positives in the face of a lost World Baseball Classic dream, or a failed mission in Tokyo that came ever so close to reaping success but in the end wasn’t quite accomplished. It is easy to forget that Cuba mastered Japan this time around, blunting the Samurai sword so long stuck in the team’s backside. The 6-3 win over the defending world champions in Fukuoka was not at all a fluke but a convincing demonstration of Cuban talent. And the general consensus of professional observers over here (especially the big league scouting community with which I have communicated daily) was that Cuba was by a significant margin the best team to be found in the WBC’s Asian pool. Yet the best team on paper doesn’t always win; the baseball sometimes takes very funny bounces. Single games and even single innings and not lengthy series determine champions and there is no margin for untimely lapses in performance. The Cuban record in this Classic was again 4-2, identical to the mark in 2009, but this time the Cuban squad came much closer to the prize. In San Diego the 2009 squad was never competitive in either game against the dominant Japanese. The overall record for Cuba now stands at 13-7, one of the best of all WBC entrants over three tournaments. The Americans, Dominicans and Dutch all currently sport WBC records that are approximately the same or even a notch below the Cubans. To date Cuba is still one of only three countries to reach the WBC championship game (although either one or two others will join that limited fraternity in San Francisco). The overall 13-7 Cuban tournament record is a rather remarkable achievement in itself considering that the Red Machine remains the only team in the field that attempts to play with only its perhaps somewhat outdated brand of undiluted national baseball.
The biggest plus side in Tokyo and Fukuoka was the fact that this particular team displayed more exciting young talent and fresh blood than any other Cuban squad of the past half-dozen years. José Fernandez, Yasmani Tomas, and Guillermo Heredia are as good as any young island-bred prospects to come on the scene in years. Friends of mine in the MLB scouting community raved about all three as the best all-around Cuban athletes in perhaps more than a decade (a recent decade, remember, that produced Céspedes, Chapman, Alexei Ramírez, Leonys Martin and several other marginal big leaguers). Andy Ibáñez played little here but impressed the pro scouts with his speed and his glue-fingered glove. Tomás (with clutch homers against Japan and Taiwan and the potential game-winning hit had the Cubans held on against the Dutch) already seems destined to be the next Alfredo Despaigne. And Bárbaro Arruebarruena would be a true budding big league defensive star were he now wearing any other country’s uniform. Only top young pitchers seem to be in short supply, although Racial Iglesias (a potential future closer for Team Cuba) and Diosdani Castillo showcased strong performances on several limited occasions.
Cuban ball clubs are obviously now playing in this special event and all other top international tournaments with the cards horribly stacked against them. Not only are they without big-league trained reinforcements, but a perceptible (hopefully temporary) dip in the level of Cuban League pitching has put talented young Cuban batters behind the “eight ball” once they have to make overnight adjustments when facing so many proficient big league and Japanese League hurlers. This fact alone has made the performance of the Cuban offense over six games here in Japan all the more impressive. Lost in the tears accompanying defeat was not only Cuba’s 4-2 showing (one less loss than the Dutch in the first two rounds) but also the team’s ability to outscore its six opponents by a 45-18 margin. Little consolation perhaps, but the Dutch have actually been outscored by the opposition over their own seven contests here in Asia.
My Facebook page has been filled in the last twenty-four hours with many suggestions that the solution for the Cuba baseball establishment is now to abandon its long-standing approach and begin fielding squads filled with the big leaguers and minor leaguers who have lately abandoned the country. For me personally this would be a poor solution to the current status of the Cuban national sport – even if it were in fact a realistic possibility any time in the near future. First and foremost, this would not be a move that was fair to so many talented island players who dream of wearing the uniform of Team Cuba. What will be the spirit and the future of Cuban baseball if Ismel Jiménez and José Fernández and Yasmani Tomás are left back at home so that Chapman and Ramirez and Céspedes can represent the league they once abandoned in order to cast their lot with the fortunes to be reaped in organized baseball? Just how many young players would remain at home to staff the Cuban League once that began happening? Is it worth one or two more wins abroad to have the Cuban “national” squad transformed into the Cuban-American All-Stars and thus to become no different in flavor from the Dutch (read Dutch Antilles here) or Dominican or Venezuela big league enterprises. For me any such move would rob Cuban baseball of the special status that attracts me and so many others to Cuba’s alternative baseball universe. For me the excitement lies in seeing Cuba’s special brand of baseball challenge the big leaguers and do so well, even if they don’t win total victory in each and every outing. Do we really want to transform the Cuban WBC team from one whose main fan base is found in Havana and Santiago and Pinar del Río and Camagüey into one whose new epicenter of fan interest lies in Miami?
It might be some consolation for fans back in Cuba – and those in other corners of the globe supporting the Cuban team – that most of the MLB-connected people I interacted with here in Tokyo and Fukuoka were genuinely pulling for the Cubans to make it on to San Francisco. And the support that drove this odd Cuban fandom in MLB circles was certainly not tied any hope by pro talent scouts that there might be player defections in the States to enrich MLB coffers. The reigning belief was rather that the Cubans play a more exciting and entertaining brand of baseball, that they showcased here some of the very best players on the Classic stage, and finally that they would likely have put on the best show in San Francisco against the Dominicans, Americans or Puerto Ricans.
The disappointment in not getting to San Francisco will now linger and it will take some time for many to escape their present disillusionment. Since Cubans in great numbers largely live for their baseball and for the successes of the team that carries their banner, this is a most difficult pill to swallow. Many on the island were skeptical in the beginning that there would be much success this time around on Asian territory – entering the Third Classic the Japanese and Koreans seemed invincible and many were already fearful of the Dutch. But expectations soared after the early win over Japan in Fukuoka, only then to quickly crash once again here in Tokyo. For many on the island, Cuban pride and self-image is intimately tied to the national team – if it does not win then the nation and the business of being Cuban has somehow failed. It is an understandable passion, but at the same time it is a not very realistic one.
There are many of us on the outside of Cuba looking in whose love of Cuban baseball is not tied solely to winning – as much as we may take pride in the victories. We love these players and the league they represent because they are the last vestige of a pure baseball – a sport that is still sport and not big business or staged television entertainment, a game played for passion and not merely for dollars. Cuban baseball is still staged for the fans and not for the commercial profit of itinerant athletes, tycoon club owners, exploitive player agents, or numerous other hangers-on who feed off the financial bonanzas the organized game now brings them. For those of us holding that sentiment a few more wins earned by a handful of “re-imported” players – big leaguers who now represent the business enterprises of the Reds or Dodgers or Yankees and return to the Cuban jersey for only two weeks every four years – would hardly be a welcomed trade-off. The Cubans have something the Dutch and the Dominicans and the Puerto Ricans do not. Their players will now return home to provide an entertaining and passion-filled domestic-based spectacle. The bulk of the Dutch and Dominican and Italian and Canadian stars will soon disperse to their North American pro clubs and thus transform from “Dutch players” or “Italian” players into Yankees or Dodgers or Orioles. For these athletes, the homeland and their home-grown baseball will quickly become a distant memory.
In the final analysis, the saddest aspect of the Cuban loss was perhaps the realization that 11 million or so passionate Cuban fans (to say nothing of 11 million self-appointed “managers”) suffered through each pitch and each base hit and each managerial ploy. Back in the land of dikes and wooden shoes and soccer madness I would be rather surprised if more than several thousand total fans even noticed the announcement of the proud “honkbal” triumph in their morning press. Overall the Dutch sports fandom has about the same level of passion about baseball as the Cuban enthusiasts do about soccer. If there were mass enthusiastic cheers for the Dutch squad breaking out anywhere on Monday night they were probably centered mostly in that country’s Caribbean colonies.
March 10, 2013 (from Tokyo, Japan)
For the second time in seven years Team Cuba now sits poised to pull off a World Baseball Classic “miracle run” designed once more to underscore the true quality of post-aluminum-bat and post-amateur-era island baseball. It now all comes down to one final rematch on Monday night with either the Dutch or Japanese – this time with a trip to San Francisco as the ultimate prize. One more victory and Cuba will join Japan and Korea as the only three clubs so far to reach the final championship round of the MLB Classic on multiple occasions.
The Cubans have more than mildly surprised all the critics both at home and aboard with their week-long batting surge here in Asia. Many assessed this team as owning an inferior lineup before the first pitch was ever thrown but now are beginning to eat their words and revisit their pessimisms – especially after four straight multiple homer games (a slugging outburst that has left the Red Machine lineup only two short of the record dozen long balls slugged over a much longer stretch by the 2006 championship Japanese squad).
On Saturday night the potent Cuban offense put on an impressive slugging display that has few parallels in the short history of Classic tournament play. This particular fourteen-run KO was of a far different order than the similar mismatches between Team USA or Team Mexico and the weak South African squad back in 2006; it came against a Chinese Taipei team that was a Pool B number one seed and also owned enough pitching to one-hit the Dutch last week in Taichung. The same Chinese Taipei outfit also forced the Japanese into a low-scoring extra-inning affair less than twenty-four hours before tonight’s one-sided mismatch. Freddie Cepeda began the hit parade against the stunned Taiwanese with a towering two-run first-inning blast off starter Ching-Lung Lo that provided all the momentum and cushion needed. National team rookie Yasmani Tomás sealed the deal with a three-run opposite field dinger in the fourth (his second game-changing circuit clout of the tournament). José Dariel Abreu (also his second) and Alfredo Despaigne (a tournament-leading third) added to the embarrassment of riches during the final eight-run sixth frame.
Yet despite all the heroics to date the Cuban fans back home – as well as certain segments of the Cuban sporting press – have not been fully satisfied with the team’s impressive showing. Manager Victor Mesa continues to evoke howls of protest on the home front for his flamboyant managerial style and his often unorthodox game management. My own Facebook page has received dozens of postings and messages lamenting the fact that the Cuban squad is being directed by “a loco manager” whose moves seem to mystify the average fan. This despite the fact that Mesa’s team has so far achieved as much success and performed equally as brilliantly as the two WBC clubs (both managed by Higinio Vélez) that preceded it. Cuba bats have slugged proficiently and consistently throughout the two rounds and even the loss to Holland witnessed plenty of Cuban offense (two homers and a dozen base knocks that were unfortunately muted by five Dutch double plays). And Mesa’s pitching corps has far exceeded expectations. There have been only a couple of bad innings and a single ill-placed pitch from Yadier Pedroso to Holland’s Jonathan Schoop is likely all that has kept the Cubans from being undefeated at the moment. Danny Betancourt, especially, has emerged as the surprise mound star, and in last night’s vital outing the Santiago ace stymied a usually proficient and dangerous Chinese Taipei batting order with six brilliant innings of 3-hit shutout hurling.
Victor has been quick to answer his critics here in post-game press conferences with good humor and a sufficient dose of much-merited cocky defiance. His first comments to the post-game press gathering last night jovially addressed the flood of criticisms aimed at him in the domestic Cuban media. With a direct reference to having Abreu bunt with Cepeda on first and none out in the fourth (a near-genius move that opened the door to victory when the Taiwanese were caught napping and botched the play with a throwing error that opened the flood gates), Mesa acknowledged that his tactics were increasingly questioned when he turned to Japanese-style sacrifice bunts with his top sluggers in the box. Smiling to the large media throng Mesa quipped, “Let’s see what they are saying about me back home after that particular play.”
Manager Mesa also stirred the pot a bit last night on the eve of an all-important rematch on Monday with either potent Holland or the defending champion Nippon squad. Pressed by the local Japanese media during the post-game press meeting, Victor was not shy about admitting he was rooting for Japan in Sunday’s first qualification game. “It would be my greatest pleasure to move on to San Francisco with the Japanese team,” Victor observed, likely an understandable sentiment given Mesa’s history of a four-year stint coaching here in the Asian nation and also his oft-spoken admiration of the Japanese approach to the game. But it was not the kind of bold declaration most managers would risk making – one that could perhaps inspire the Dutch by publically announcing that they were the team the Cuban skipper felt most comfortable tackling in Monday’s crucial rematch.
In three straight Classics now Cuba has faced exactly the same scenario – a single final Round Two showdown with all the marbles on the table for a trip to the prestigious tournament finals. The count is even with one triumph (the dramatic 2006 San Juan successes versus host Puerto Rico with its bevy of big league stars) and one failure (the 2009 elimination meltdown against overpowering Japanese pitching in San Diego). Few if any (stateside or back home) expected a Cinderella Cuban ball club to shine so brightly in the inaugural Classic (their first true test against squads of MLB all-stars). The 2009 elimination loss to eventual champion Japan was especially painful and historic because it finally broke a miraculous string that had witnessed fifty full years of reaching the finals in every major international tournament entered. This third test is the most intriguing of all, since widespread expert opinion pegged this current Cuban club as the weakest of its trio of WBC entries. A victory in this year’s final elimination test would certify manager Mesa’s current crew as the true equal of any talented Cuban squad from the island’s rich baseball past.
Tonight the Japanese and Dutch (Cuba’s two top international rivals) square off in a showdown of opening day victors designed to launch one of them into the San Francisco final round. No matter what the result of that contest history will now be made. If the Nippon squad behind starter Kenta Maeda (ace right-hander of the Hiroshima Carp) gains the victory, they will be the only club to visit all three World Baseball Classic finales. If the Dutch (who will count on veteran hurler Rob Cordemans) come out on top, it will mark the first-ever European appearance in the WBC elite Final Four. On paper at least the Dutch seem to own a huge offensive edge; but don’t dismiss the power of artful Japanese pitching, the fanatical Tokyo Dome home crowd, nor the long tradition of Japanese clutch performances. My own money is on the Japanese in this one.
Finally a word or two has to be written about the stark contrast on display here in Tokyo between Asian ball fans and those back home on the island of Cuba. Much has been written about all-too-obvious differences between Asian-style on-field play (with its “small ball” bunting mentality) and that found in the Caribbean (a more wide open freewheeling style); but the contrasts are just as eye-catching in the grandstands. In Saturday’s game, with Cuba leading 14-0 in the final “mercy rule” seventh inning, a large contingent of Taiwanese rooters kept up their constant din of chanting and singing and urging on their favorites in the face of an imminent and embarrassing tournament-ending drubbing. At the press table we joked about the fact that one entering the stadium at that very moment would have thought that the Taiwanese faithful were celebrating a victory, or that we were witnessing a knuckle-biting deadlocked game and not a mere one-sided shellacking. Asians love the diamond sport, adore their teams, and also love the baseball experience – win, lose or draw. In a similar scenario North American fans would have already headed for the exits, while the bulk of Cuban fans would have been wailing about doom and destruction and the abject failures of their latest ill-suited manager and ballplayers. Asian fans adore the spectacle of the sport no matter what the score, American fans tolerate only winning, but Cuban fans for the most part are simply obsessed with back-stabbing complaints and wrenching lamentations.
The Cuban fans are of a whole different breed from the Asians. While the island has always boasted some of the world’s best baseball teams and players, it appears to also house the most spoiled and out-of touch fandom. Yes Cuban fans are the savviest on the planet when it comes to understand the history and strategies of the game; yet at the same time they own a rather debilitating blind spot when it comes to the cherished national team. It is difficult to figure out at times if many of the Cuban fans truly want solid performances from their ball-playing heroes, or rather whether they secretly welcome disaster which opens the door to the true national pastime of constant second guessing and breast-beating. In the aftermath of last-night’s impressive 14-0 walk-off there will be many on Havana street corners who will now spend most of the day ruing the fact that a super-knockout (15 or more runs) was not achieved, or more likely faulting manager Mesa for bunting with his cleanup hitter (Abreu) during the four-run fourth-inning outburst that broke the game wide open.
In brief, Cuban fans probably don’t deserve another trip to the Classic finals in the face of their deluge of complaints about this current club and manager which are now proving themselves the equals of any that have come before. But if victory does come against either the Dutch or Japanese, this tight-knit current edition of Team Cuba will deserve a ranking as likely the best Cuban squad ever; they will have triumphed (no matter what happens in two contests at Pac Bell Park) against the best international baseball field ever assembled. And they can also turn a deaf ear to the din of constant criticisms and second guessing from so many back home who simply don’t appreciate the beauties of the baseball tradition that they possess, and also don’t comprehend the challenges of the modern-era international game as it is currently played.
March 9, 2013 (from Tokyo, Japan)
If Team Cuba at least temporarily dispelled one myth in Fukuoka on Wednesday (that they could perhaps never learn to hit funky Japanese pitching), they nonetheless failed miserably on Friday afternoon to dismiss yet another pervasive theme (that their new insurmountable hurdle seems to be the talent-rich forces of the Dutch national team). In Panama in September 2011 a Cuban squad managed by Alfonso Urquiola went down harmlessly twice against the Dutch forces (their only two tournament defeats) and thus squandered an opportunity to reclaim an IBAF world title during the final edition of the now-suspended Baseball World Cup. In a Taiwan tune-up late last month Cuban bats were again effectively blanketed by Dutch pitching. At the 2010 Haarlem Baseball Week a Cuban B squad managed by Germán Mesa suffered through the only “mercy rule” drubbing (10-0) suffered by a top-level Cuban outfit in more than four full decades. In brief, The Netherlands (now featuring a host of young big league prospects like Kalian Sams, Andrelton Simmos and Jonathan Schoop) has recently become just as large a thorn in the Cuban side as have the two-time WBC champion Japanese.
Yesterday’s tough 6-2 setback against the Dutch here in the Tokyo Dome is easy enough to explain on the surface: shaky opening pitching by Ismel Jiménez, lack of key hits from the previously hot Cuban lineup, aggressive and opportunistic hitting from the Hollanders, and especially the defensive play of a Dutch middle infield that could well be the best in the entire World Baseball Classic field of sixteen. Jiménez surrendered a pair of crucial blasts (homer and double) in the second frame to hand Holland a lead they would never relinquish. The Dutch stepped up big at the plate on the several occasions when they manufactured scoring threats, although they did twice leave runners stranded at third base. The Cubans with a dozen hits of their own managed to put plenty of runners on the base paths but then banged into rally-ending twin killings in five of their nine trips to the plate.
Cuba now faces exactly the same scenario as the one that sunk the islanders in San Diego four years back. In the 2009 Classic the team managed by Higinio Vélez entered round two coming off an impressive 3-0 sweep in Mexico City (wins over South Africa, Australia and host Mexico). But they ran into a Japanese wall in the San Diego opener (falling 6-0 to Diasuke Matsuzaka). Battling back to survive 7-4 against Mexico (thanks mainly to clutch hitting by Freddie Cepeda, who when 3-for-4 with a double and 4 RBIs), the Cubans earned a second shot at the Japanese and were silenced in identical fashion yet again, this time by a 5-0 count. An identical drama is now about to be replayed, since Mesa and company must once again this time around win out against both Taiwan and then the loser of Sunday’s winners-bracket match between Holland and Japan. A loss in either game will mean that the dream of reaching the Classic finals will have been thwarted for the second straight time.
Diego Markwell did not exactly silence the Cuban bats in the Tokyo opener, but backed by solid defense he was just effective enough to get the job done. Markwell had earlier shut out Cuba 5-0 a late-February Taichung exhibition match and pitched from the start with great confidence. But he did surrender nine safeties over six frames and didn’t strike out a single batter. His one lapse was a misplaced fastball that Alfredo Despaigne spanked into the right field seats in the bottom of the second. It was the five double plays by the Dutch infield (two off tame ground balls by cleanup hitter José Abreu) that effectively kept the Cuban offense at bay until Schoop’s three-run shot off Pedroso eventually put the game away.
The contest, however, was not without a pair of bright spots for the Cubans. Yulieski Gourriel finally broke out of a tournament-long hitless slump with a 2-for-4 afternoon highlighted by a ringing homer in the seventh off Leon Boyd. Unfortunately for the Cubans, the pair of long balls by Despaigne and Gourriel (the third straight two-homer game for Mesa’s club) both came with the bases empty of runners. A second high point was the solid if futile relief effort turned in by Freddy Asiel Alvarez who hurled four effective innings and kept the game close throughout the middle innings. The two earned runs charged to Alvarez were in fact the result of the gopher ball that Pedroso eventually served up to Jonathan Schoop.
The game’s key blows for the Dutch came early off the bats of first sacker Curt Smith (an MLB free agent) and second baseman Jonathan Schoop (a major league with the Baltimore Orioles), and they provided a cushion that could never be surmounted by the stymied Cuban offense. Batting in the seventh hole, Smith launched Ismel’s first pitch into the left field seats in the top of the second to provide an early lead and thus early momentum. With the game still close at 2-1 in the top of the sixth, Schoop rocketed a three-run shot off a fat 2-2 delivery served up by reliever Yadier Pedroso to ultimately decide the issue. Unlike Fukuoka, the balls here seem to fly out of the Tokyo Dome and the overall hit parade saw the winners outslug the Cubans by a mere 14-12 margin. The big difference-makers, however, were the timely blows struck by the Dutch with base runners aboard and the five double plays turned in by the crack big-league keystone combination of Andrelton Simmons (Atlanta Braves) and Jonathan Schoop.
Commenting to the Cuba press about his two bad pitches in the second frame that resulted in the early Dutch lead, Ismel Jiménez admitted that he had made a major mistake with the fastball he left in the center of the plate to eight-spot hitter Kalian Sams; the result was a double that soon provided Holland’s second tally. But Ismel also observed that the gopher ball served up to the previous hitter Smith was a solid low slider which the experienced professional hitter simply tattooed with authority. The homer was just a good piece of hitting, Ismel observed, and not any error on his own part.
Cuba’s opponent in the all-important Saturday night match will be Chinese Taipei, a solid team coming off its own major disappointment on Friday evening. The Taiwanese seemed to be on a fast track into the winner’s bracket in their Friday opener when starter Chien-Ming Wang (twice a 19-game winner with the New York Yankees in the big leagues) ran his current WBC scoreless innings string to 12 by shutting down the weak-hitting Japanese through six solid frames. The game remained 2-0 until the eighth when Japan (the visiting team) finally broke through before a wild capacity home town crowd and knotted the count against free-agent southpaw reliever Hung-Chih Kuo. The crucial Japanese hits in the pivotal eighth came off the bats of a pair of home town Yomiuri Giants stars Shinnosuke Abe and Hayato Sakamoto. The lead changes hands four times in the final three frames of the thrilling five hour dog fight but the tide in the end turned on Hirokazo Ibata’s tie-breaking single in the ninth and Sho Nakata’s tie-breaking (and eventually game-winning) sacrifice fly in the visitor’s tenth.
Cuba may well have dodged a bullet Friday night with the Taiwanese defeat which eliminated the necessity of an immediate rematch against their old nemesis Japan; the Nippon ball club not only has the bracket’s most potent pitching but is now reenergized and playing before noisy and partisan home crowds. Beating the pesky Japanese twice in succession might well have been the stiffer challenge, although no must-win contest will be easy from here on out. Cuba faced the Taipei club twice in Taichung last month and split the series (a 6-5 loss and a 20-11 victory) and although the teams are evenly matched, the Cubans in the past have usually been able to find plenty of base hits off Taipei hurlers. The starters have been announced as Ching-Lung Lo (a veteran right hander who currently labors for the Chinese Pro League Uni-President Lions) and Danny Betancourt (coming off an effective 4.2 inning start in the Pool A 12-0 romp over China). Lo is a lanky 6-6 fast-baller who saw only limited action in the Pool B games for Taiwan, making a brief relief appearance in the final losing match versus Korea and thus facing only six batters. The central issue tonight will boil down to which of the clubs is best prepared to roar back more successfully and aggressively from their shared stinging defeats in the Tokyo Dome openers. Nothing less than survival in the tournament and the chance for one final shot at a berth in San Francisco is now what is at stake.
March 6, 2013 (from Fukuoka, Japan)
For the second straight time Cuba has swept through the opening round qualification pool at the prestigious MLB World Baseball Classic and in the process has now upped its overall WBC tournament record to 12 victories against five defeats. But that is not the essence of the story; this time the final first-round victim was not tame rival Mexico but instead defending champion Japan, and therein lays a huge difference. The Cubans have struggled mightily with the Japanese – especially with Japanese pitching – in recent series and have not beaten a front-line Nippon team in either a major tournament or even a friendly match since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It was the Samurai club that walked over the Cubans in the inaugural WBC finale; four years ago in San Diego the Japanese again held mastery and eliminated the Red Machine during the second WBC round – the earliest exit for the Cubans in a major international tournament in nearly a half century. With a 2-0 exhibition game blanking in Fukuoka last November the Japanese extended to 31 their string of scoreless innings against top Cuban squads. It was beginning to seem like Cuba simply could handle the crafty pitching styles of professional Japanese hurlers.
But all that angst ended with a bang on Wednesday night in Fukuoka when Yasmani Tomás (a last-minute choice of manager Victor Mesa to open in right field) launched a misplaced fastball tossed by Fukuoka Soft Bank Hawks ace southpaw Kenji Otonari into the left field bleachers to open a Cuban attack that put six runs and ten hits on the board against what was supposed to be stellar Nippon pitching. The Tomás homer broke a second unenviable string of 20 straight scoreless frames by Cuban batters against the Asian powerhouse over the course of the last two World Baseball Classic editions. The big blow was supplemented an inning later when José Miguel Fernández opened with a sharp single to center and always reliable Freddie Cepeda (batting right handed against Otonari) ripped a stinging double into the right center field gap to up the count to 2-0. It was again Fernández (the tournament’s leading hitter to date) who opened a third offensive thrust in the sixth with a double off reliever Hirokazu Sawamura; pinch runner Luis Rivera scampered homer from third two batter later thanks to a single into the right field gap off the bat of José Dariel Abreu.
But the biggest blow of the evening came in the home eighth in the form of a towering three-run homer from Alfredo Despaigne that provided crucial insurance runs and upped the widening margin to a seemingly safe six runs. Takeru Imamura issued a free base to Cepeda to launch the final Cuban rally. After Alexei Bell replaced Cepeda as a pinch runner, Abreu again singled in the hole and Mesa’s boys had runners at the corners with none out. At that point Despaigne drove the ball deep into the left-center field seats and the Cuban dry spell against the Nippon team was all but officially over. Despaigne’s game-changing long ball was also the primary factor in his selection as the MVP hero of the Pool A Fukuoka opening round.
In a remarkable reversal of form, it was the Cuban hurlers and not the Japanese pitchers on Wednesday night who revealed near complete mastery. Isla southpaw Wilbur Pérez was solid enough as a starter to work out of three straight mild jams that saw the Japanese leave four on base over the opening stretch. Pérez was followed by Yander Guevara who also survived minor scrapes for two-plus innings, stranding a pair in the fourth, permitting but a single enemy safety, and striking out five along the way. Guevara was finally finished after walking Yoshio Itoi to open the sixth and replacement Diosdani Castillo immediately surrendered a single to Sho Nakata that sent Itoi scampered to third. The threat died there, however, when Mesa pulled precisely the right strings by bringing in veteran lefty Norberto González who induced an inning-ending and thus rally-killing 1-6-3 double play.
For all their achievement in the final Fukuoka match the Cubans did briefly stumble in the ninth frame when after an opening out Victor Mesa decided to remove Norberto González (with the tournament pitch count restrictions playing into the decision) and test a pair of national team rookies – Racial Iglesias and Darien Núñez. Neither was effective as Iglesias (a hero out of the bullpen against Brazil in the opener) walked a pair, a third free pass from replacement Núñez loaded the sacks, and an infield single between short and third by Hisayohi Chono finally broke the potential shutout. A sacrifice fly and a second single (this time by Hirokazu Ibata) brought the count to a far narrower 6-3 and quickly enlivened a long-silent Japan crowd before Vladimir García finally gunned down reserve catcher Ryoji Aikawa to end the last-minute tensions for the Cuban bench.
Japan has not looked exceptionally strong throughout the entire stretch of pool play in Fukuoka and the seeming flaws in their offense were on full display Wednesday when the Nippon crew achieved base runners every frame until the seventh and yet could never patch together a series of opportunistic base hits that might have put them in commanded early on in the game. First round performances both here in Japan and also in Taichung seem to suggest that the Cubans and Dutch (Friday’s opening Round 2 opponents) have to be given a nod as the Asian sector favorites to advance to San Francisco. Of course one of these long-time rivals will have to start in the whole after Friday (when they meet head-to-head), but the modified double-elimination format means that a hot-hitting Cuban outfit will have more than a single chance to maintain their early momentum.
Nothing is yet guaranteed as second-round tensions heat up here in the Tokyo Dome tomorrow. Cuba has struggled as much with Dutch pitching mastery of late as they have with the Japanese – losing twice in tight contests at the 2011 Panama World Cup and more recently dropping a 5-0 decision in Taichung to tomorrow’s starter Diego Markwell. Now that Japan has been wounded and their own possibilities for defending their two Classic titles seem to be shrinking rapidly in the face of lame offense and surprisingly inconsistent hurling, the Nippon forces may prove a much tougher nut to crack the second time around. But the three solid performances by Mesa and company in Fukuoka plus the timely battering of Japanese hurlers on Wednesday should be enough at least to momentarily quiet those loud naysayers in the Cuban press and on Havana street corners who have been for several years repeating a most tiresome negative mantra – a despairing mantra that claims Cuban teams are poorly selected, or that Mesa is an inept and incompetent bench leader, or that the quality of Cuban squads has been diminished during the modern era and thus that the baseball sky is about to collapse over Havana and the rest of the Pearl of the Caribbean.
But those endless and predictable complaints have now been temporarily put to rest by a huge and long-awaited triumph over the kingpin Japanese. Win or lose the next couple of days here in Tokyo, this is undoubtedly one of the best Cuban squads in recent memory and certainly a team now playing with spirit and confidence not witnessed in the half dozen years separating us from the first surprising Cuban WBC charge toward an elusive world tile back in March 2006. Victor Mesa keeps repeating a single mantra of his own in post-game press meetings – that until his squad finally reigns as world champions something will still be missing from both his current ball club and also from the heart and soul of Cuban baseball. I wouldn’t want to bet on that vacancy miraculously being gloriously filled in the next couple of weeks, but then again I wouldn’t now bet against that possibility either.
March 5, 2013 (Fukuoka, Japan)
If any of the top challengers for this year’s World Baseball Classic title have been taking Team Cuba lightly, they would be well advised to start seriously reassessing the picture. The Cubans shocked the professional baseball world back in 2006 when they ran all the ways to the finals of the first Classic – upending MLB star-packed lineups from Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic along the way. A bit of the luster was taken off the mystique surrounding Cuban baseball three years later (WBC II) when the Red Machine faltered with a pair of tough elimination-pool losses to the Japanese in San Diego. But this time around rookie national team manager Victor Mesa has been touting a single chant – that it is “San Francisco or bust” for the latest Cuban outfit – and there have been many both on the island of Cuba and off who have largely dismissed Mesa’s theme song as mainly idle inspirational chatter. Yet after an impressive comeback final exhibition win here Friday night over the talented Japanese Pacific League Fukuoka Hawks, plus two impressive Pool A outings versus Brazil and China, any doubters or naysayers had better start listening to both Mesa’s words and the hefty Cuban bats that stand behind them.
Of course Brazil and China are Brazil and China – not Japan or the Dominicans or the USA big leaguer all-stars. Nonetheless the Cubans have been so far overly impressive on at least three fronts. Foremost they have been playing loose and with a solid air of confidence that can be felt all the way to the grandstands and the press box. Secondly, the Cuban bats have been booming, erasing many doubts grounded in a number of meltdowns during big tournament and exhibition games (especially against Japan and Holland) across recent seasons. Perhaps most important of all, the somewhat-suspect Cuban pitching arsenal has proven up to the task here in all three Fukuoka Dome outings. Ismel Jiménez and Danny Betancourt have been near brilliant in their tournament starts – a fact to be measured not against the lesser competition offered from Brazilian and Chinese hitters but rather by the pitch location and strike zone mastery displayed during both outings. Racial Iglesias has also been “lights out” in two relief appearances, especially the three closing innings against pesky Brazil on Sunday. And except for one shaky early inning in the Friday night exhibition with the Soft Bank Hawks (a six-run disaster when Odrisamer Despaigne and Darien Nuñez could never find the plate) the collective Cuban mound corps (especially the starters) has consistently been rising to the occasion each and every time the situation has so demanded.
The Cuban offense jumped out of the box early against inexperienced Chinese hurlers. The explosion began in the first frame after a two-out error on a line drive off the bat of José Fernández that handcuffed first baseman Fujia Chu cracked open the door. Batting right handed against southpaw Chinese starter Xin Li, Freddie Cepeda smashed a ringing triple into the right-center field gap that plated a first tally. After their only scoreless inning of the first five in the second frame, the Cubans picked up the pace in the third when Fernández again opened the action with a single, moved up a base on Li’s wild pitch, and then trotted home thanks to José Abreu’s towering double over the right fielder’s head.
Cuba took full command in the fourth when Erisbel Arruebarruena reached second on a wild throw at first, then moved over to third on an almost comical play in which the Chinese attempted to claim that the Cuban shortstop had missed first base; when pitcher Li stepped back on the rubber to but the ball in play and then too casually tossed the ball to first, Arruebarruena simply scampered over the third while the sleeping Chinese defense forget to pay him any notice. Bell’s following home run then made the Chinese pay by upping the score to 4-0. The botch protest play was one of two that exposed the Chinese inexperience. In the second inning shortstop Ray Chang collected the first and only hit off Betancourt and then scampered to second when a passed ball bounced off the glove of Cuban catcher Eriel Sánchez. Reaching the bag safely, Chang (a AAA player in the Cincinnati Reds organization who might have been expected to have more baseball savvy) then left the base and began trotting back to first when two Cuban infielder tactically screamed “foul ball” – caught in the clever deception, Chang was immediately tagged out.
The biggest hits of the evening were the pair of homers by Alexei Bell and José Dariel Abreu – the latter a booming grand slam highlighting a six-run fifth-inning explosion – more than enough to put the contest result beyond doubt. Fukuoka’s Yahoo Dome is a difficult home run park: the fences are distant and exceptional high, the WBC tournament ball is soft and dead, and the Dome atmosphere knocks down most fly balls. Press and MLB scouts here had been speculating all week that we might not see a single long ball during the entire Pool A round. But Bell struck first and did so when he was simply trying to elevate the ball in order to assure that base runner Arruebarruena might score from third on a sacrifice fly. Abreu’s bases loaded shot was a truly mammoth blast into the left-center field seats off reliever Yu Liu (Beijing Tiger, Chinese Pro League) that would likely have cleared any fence – even one erected in the Grand Canyon.
Not to be overlooked during all the offensive heroics was another solid starting pitching effort, this time by Danny Betancourt. Moving his tosses all over the strike zone and changing his speeds deceptively Betancourt struck out eight, walked only one, and allowed the sole single to Chang. Removed with two down in the fifth by the 65-pitch-count rule, the Santiago ace was followed by Yadier Pedroso (1.1 innings), Vladimr García (0.2), and finally Alex Rodríguez (0.1). Pedroso and Rodríguez yielded the other pair of Chinese hits and Pedroso surrendered the lone additional free pass. Mesa brought Rodríguez to the hill with two out in the final seventh frame in order to give his second closer at least a few tosses and thus keep him fresh for action later in the week. With the score at 12-0, the game was suspended after 6.5 innings by the WBC “knock out” mercy rule in effect for all international tournament play.
Victor Mesa repeated a single important message several times during his post-game press conference Monday evening. He was asked on three different occasions by Japanese reporters who his starter would be for the all-important (in the eyes of Japanese media at least) clash with Team Nippon. The Cuban manager responded that for his club the Japan game was not the biggest concern, but rather the greatest importance lay in the pending results of games going on during Pool B in Taichung. Thrice Mesa responded that he did not want to make any pitching plans until he had a better idea who the two clubs coming to Tokyo from Taipei might be – his choice of pitchers would be mostly determined by whether he might have to face Taiwan, or Holland or even Korea on the opening night in the Tokyo Dome on Friday. Thursday’s match here with the Japanese does have an element of pride attached, and it will determine the first seed in Pool A (the team that will play the second seed from Taichung). But the real issue in Mesa’s mind was now to begin maneuvering for round two matches and the final crucial step on the road to his announced goal of “San Francisco or bust” – the new Cuban rallying cry.