When Cuba’s Baseball Came of Age
Baseball fans in Cuba, and there are a lot of them, are currently fixated on the close races in the 2006-7 regular season which has just over 20 games to go, but memories of last year’s World Baseball Classic are still fresh.
On March 3, 2006 the first World Baseball Classic began in Tokyo; 17 days later in San Diego, California it was indeed the Japanese team that had won the tournament defeating the Cuba “mystery” team 10-6 in the final game.
Along the way the United States, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic —with their rosters packed with multi-millionaire Major Leaguers— had fallen in hard fought games that had kept baseball fans around the world on edge.
Both Cuba and Japan had been long shots to make it to the finals and they proved that top notch baseball is not only played in the US Major Leagues. From the beginning, Cuba had said it would go with its national amateur squad and would not be asking Cuban-born Major Leaguers that live in the United States to play with the team.
President Fidel Castro had stated, “Cuba will play well, even though they have stolen many of our good players.”
GETTING THERE WAS HALF THE BATTLE
Havana residents joke that most people have two jobs: One is getting to and from work, and the other the job itself. Getting to the WBC proved no exception for the Cubans.
The Bush administration’s dogged attempt to block the island from participating almost ruined the long awaited tournament. The pretext was a Treasury Department clause in the nearly half century US blockade on Cuba that prohibits any transfer of funds to the island’s government.
In a bold move the Puerto Rican Baseball Federation, one of the tournaments hosts, threatened to pull out if Cuba wasn’t allowed to play. The International Olympic Committee also made it known that the administration’s obsession with Cuba could cost it the venue to host any future Olympic Games.
Cuba then chipped in by offering to donate any prize money it won to Hurricane Katrina victims. The offer was not just symbolic. Within hours of when the hurricane struck in August 2005, Cuba had decked out a fully equipped medical brigade of over 1,500 doctors it offered to send for as long as needed.
Finally, only weeks before the Classic was to begin, the Bush administration caved in after a last ditch appeal by the WBC organizers including the Major League Players Association. It was play ball!
The reaction from Japanese manager Sadaharu Oh couldn’t have been more prophetic. “I am glad. Now the top class will be participating. If Cuba doesn’t take part, the WBC wouldn’t be anything,” said Japan’s all-time leading homerun hitter.
SPORTSWRITERS WERE SUSPECT OF CUBAN TEAM
Before the Classic began many US sportswriters had questioned Cuba’s victories in the Olympics and World Cup Baseball tournament because Major Leaguers don’t take part. Could the Cubans compete with “the best that money can buy?” Many asked how good the “mystery team” really was.”
Even at Havana’s Central Park, where a daily baseball debate takes place among hardened fanatics and whoever wants to join in, expectations were divided as to whether Cuba’s best could compete.
In fact, it was noted by many that it wasn’t a particularly good year for the island’s top pitchers with several nursing injuries, raising doubts if they could contain the likes of Albert Pujols, David Ortiz and Carlos Beltran. Most agreed that making it to the second round of play in the 16-team event would be a major accomplishment.
Cuba’s games were all broadcast live on national television and most of the other WBC games were also shown.
When the tournament ended and Cuba finished second it was entitled to 7 percent of the reported 15 million dollars in profits, just over a million dollars. However, no detailed report was released on what the organizers did with the money, although 1.2 million was reportedly donated to Habitat for Humanity to build 16 homes in the Gulf Region.
Big hearted pitching by Yadel Marti, Pedro Luis Lazo, Vicyoandri Odelin, Adiel Palma and Ormari Romero and key defensive plays in the 7th inning against Puerto Rico in Round Two and in the 6th inning against the Dominican Republic in the Semifinals were proof that Cuba’s baseball had come of age.
Designated hitter Yoandry Garlobo (.480 batting average), second baseman Yulieski Gourriel (8 runs scored and excellent fielding) and Pitcher Yadel Marti (12.2 scoreless innings) made the all-WBC team along with three Japanese players including Daisuke Matsuzaka the tournament’s MVP with three victories. The other standouts were three Koreans including first baseman Seung Yeop Lee who blasted five home runs, Dominican third baseman Adrian Beltre (9 RBIs) and shortstop Derek Jeter from team USA who hit .450.
Everyone said Cuba needed to win its Round One opening game against Panama and it wasn’t easy. Cuba blew a 6-4 lead and almost lost in the bottom of the ninth only to win 8-6 in the 11th inning on RBI hits by Yoandry Garlobo, the tournament’s second leading hitter, and Frederich Cepeda.
While an easy 11-2 romp over the Netherlands was assuring Cuba a ticket to Round Two, US anti-Cuba politics got in the way with provocateurs raising degrading signs behind home plate behind ever pitch. The attempt to mar the sporting event appeared to have the support of police and security agents who went so far as to place guards alongside the provocateurs to protect them from fans who disapproved of the attempt to smear Cuba and mix politics with sports.
With the possibility of a Cuba pull out from the tournament the local fans made a ruckus and San Juan public opinion ran high against the provocations. By the next game the matter had been settled.
Politics aside, Cuba then had to face Puerto Rico and its all Major League lineup including Bernie Williams, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Javy Lopez.
Even though both teams had already qualified for Round Two, the game proved to be a humbling experience as Cuba lost 12-2, ending a 19 game winning streak in international competition. Once again the issue of whether the Cuban team was on the par with their Major League counterparts came into question, especially the pitching.
ROUND TWO grouped Korea, Japan, United States and Mexico in Group A to be played in Anaheim, California and Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic and Cuba comprised Group B to play in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Two teams in each group would qualify for the semifinals in San Diego.
Play began for Cuba against Venezuela, the island’s biggest trade partner and political ally, but that had nothing to do with playing against a team laden with players that had left the South American country to play in the US Major Leagues.
The task was awesome with Venezuela starting lefthander Johan Santana (Cy Young Award winner in 2006 with 19 wins, 245 strikeouts and 2.77 ERA for Minnesota) against Industriales right-hander Yadel Marti.
A second inning double by designated hitter Yoandry Garlobo and a two out RBI single by first baseman Ariel Borrero put Cuba ahead 1-0, a lead they would never relinquish against a team boasting a $103 million dollar payroll.
Marti combined his slider, breaking and off-speed pitches to hold Venezuelan batters hitless during the first four innings. When he flinched in the fifth, giving up two singles, the Cuban manager Higinio Velez didn’t hesitate to bring in hard throwing right-hander Pedro Luis Lazo. The veteran got off to a bad start bobbling a bunt that loaded the bases with nobody out. Cuba was deep in trouble.
However, the towering Lazo got Endy Chavez and all-star shortstop Omar Vizquel to hit flies to short left, too shallow for the runner on third to tag. But the threat wasn’t over as Carlos Guillen stepped into the batters box with the bases still loaded. Lazo struck him out with a 97 MPH fastball allowing Velez and millions of fans back home to take a long deep breath.
Johan Santana recovered well after giving up the initial run but the roof caved in for Venezuela when Giovanny Carrara came in to pitch the sixth with Cuba scoring five topped by a three run homer by Frederich Cepeda. While Venezuela got two runs on a homer by Endy Chavez in the seventh, Lazo turned up the heat and retired seven of the last eight batters to complete a memorable 5-inning save.
“Two days ago when Puerto Rico beat Cuba, everyone said we were already out of the tournament," said an elated Lazo, "But Cuba is not gone. Cuba is still here to play, and whoever wants to beat her will really have to sweat it out.”
However, there were still miles to go to make to the semifinals as Cuba would still have to beat the Dominican Republic, the tournament’s Las Vegas and London co-favorites along with the United States, or Puerto Rico.
And it wasn’t going to be the Dominican Republic. When you give up eight walks, hit two batters, commit a balk, allow nine hits, make two fielding errors, and bat into three double plays, winning the game is pretty much out of the question.
Cuba lost 7-3 but there was a fleeting moment of hope after being down 7-0 in the sixth. In the ninth inning Cuba loaded the bases with two out with the tying run at the plate in pinch hitter Juan Carlos Pedroso. The Dominicans fourth reliever Fernando Rodney put an end to all that with a called third strike.
DO OR DIE REMATCH AGAINST PUERTO RICO
This left Cuba with one alternative beat Puerto Rico playing in San Juan to 20,000 fans or head home to Havana.
It was a tense game from the onset, nothing like the Puerto Rico’s romp in Round One. Dicky Gonzalez, who had hog tied Cuba days before, once again got the call and Ormari Romero was asked to try and stop the hard-hitting Puerto Ricans.
Cuba got a run in the top of the first on two walks and a couple sacrifice grounders but Puerto Rico got even with a leadoff one-swing blast into the bleachers by Bernie Williams. Cuba was back on the boards in the fourth when Gonzales ran into big trouble allowing two hits and a walk to load the bases with one out with shortstop Eduardo Paret at the plate.
Jose Oquendo, the Puerto Rican manager, gave Dicky the hook and brought in Jose Santiago who hit Paret to force in a run. Then it looked like Santiago was going to hold Cuba to a 2-1 lead after getting Yoandry Garlobo to hit into a force play at home and Yulieski Gourriel hit a routine grounder to short, but a throwing error by Alex Citron allowed two runs to score putting Cuba ahead 4-1.
Romero settled down allowing only two hits through the fourth when he was relieved by lefthander Adiel Palma who worked in and out of trouble into the seventh before giving way to Yunieski Maya with runners on first and third and nobody out. Puerto Rico got its second run on a fielder’s choice and a close call at second that irked the usually well mannered Higinio Velez, who was tossed out of the game.
Bernie Williams, who had homered in the first, stepped up against Maya with two on and still nobody out. An excellent double play from Gourriel to Paret to Borrero was followed by a walk making it runners on first and third with two out and the score 4-2.
Carlos Beltran then lined deep to center driving in Puerto Rico’s third run. All-star catcher Ivan Rodriguez tried to score from first, hoping to tie the score, but was gunned down on a relay throw from Carlos Tabares to Yulieski Gourriel to Ariel Pestano. It was a classy play against a gutsy player and the scoring was over at 4-3.
After a double play got him out of a jam in the eighth Cuban reliever Vicyohandri Odelín grew tall in the ninth forcing Bernie Williams into hit a foul pop-up and striking out Ivan Rodriguez to end the game. It was an amazing win for Cuba and a shocking loss for Puerto Rico.
After the game, the Cuban and Puerto Rican players hugged on the field in an emotional end to an action packed game and posed with each other for snapshots they themselves took to have as memories of a fantastic tournament.
SEMIFINALS AND FINALS
So now it was off to San Diego, California for the semifinals against the Dominican Republic while Japan would face Korea in the other match up.
When the Cuban team plays abroad the players are routinely hounded by agents trying to make a big buck by convincing the island’s players to give up their country for multi-million dollar contracts. There was much expectation as to what would happen and the sportswriters speculated on what players would decide to take offers.
And so it was on March 18 before 41,000 fans in San Diego that Cuba played the Dominican Republic which had beaten them 7-3 in Round Two. The game proved to be another cliff hanger but once again the amateurs proved to be on the par with a team with a $151 million dollar payroll.
American League 2005 Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon (14 million dollar salary) got the call for the Dominicans, while Cuba decided to give the ball to Yadel Marti.
Colon was impossible to score on during six innings but so was Marti who stymied the all-star Dominican lineup on his breaking pitches into the fifth with only three hits, before giving way to Pedro Luis Lazo.
The Dominicans scored the game’s first run in the bottom of the sixth on a costly two out throwing error by second baseman Yulieski Gourriel. But it could have been much worse. With two on and nobody out Lazo had to face Albert Pujols (49 homers and 137 RBIs in 2006), David Ortiz (54 homers and 137 RBIs) and Adrian Beltre (25 HRs and 87 RBIs).
After Pujols hit into a fielder’s choice, Ortiz hit a sharp grounder to the right side of second base for what should have been a single. However, shortstop Eduardo Paret had virtually guessed where Ortiz would be hitting and had abandoned his normal position to be at the right place at the right time. “I think that if the ball Ortiz hit would have gone through, the ballgame would have changed,” said Albert Pujols after the game.
The Dominicans’ 1-0 lead didn’t last long as the Cuban offense came alive for a 4-hit three run seventh inning on RBIs from Frederich Cepeda, Osmani Urrutia and Alexei Ramirez.
The Dominicans last big threat came in the eighth and threat it was. With one out and two runners on, once again David Ortiz stepped into the batters box against Lazo. Sweating up a storm but calm under the collar, Lazo got Ortiz to fly to right and Adrian Beltre followed with a liner to Cepeda in left to end the inning. Final score Cuba 3 Dominican Republic 1.
After the game Albert Pujols told a Major League Baseball writer, “Lazo made some good pitches and threw a good slider on me, and he just came right at us.” Pujols added: “There is no more talking, no more excuses. They played good baseball and beat us.”
Dominican manger Manny Acta told MLB: “I can see why Cuba dominated the international competition. Their pitching is legit. They can throw guys out there every single day that can pitch in the big leagues. Their pitching is legit, and that’s why they beat us.”
Pedro Luis Lazo, the man that frustrated the Dominican stars in the later innings, told the press: “For all of us, it has been a matter of great pride to play against teams of this caliber. They are very good teams even though they’re not in the finals.”
JAPAN DESERVED TO WIN
When two days later Cuba played the WBC final game against Japan some would say the team just ran out of gas after so many dramatic games. But that would be unfairly selling Japan short. Both teams have met often in international competition and know each other’s style and Japan also had to fight extremely hard to make it to the finals defeating previously undefeated Korea in the semifinals 6-0.
The Cuban manager may have made one of his few WBC mistakes be starting a right hander against a line up stacked with a majority of left handed hitters. The Japanese mix of lightning speed and power as well as clutch pitching also proved a difficult match.
With practically everyone in Cuba watching the game, at home, bars, and big screens set up in parks the first inning seemed endless. When it was over, Japan had jumped off to a 4-0 lead and Cuba was already with its third pitcher. By the fifth Japan widened its lead to 6-1 with hard-throwing right hander Daisuke Matsuzaka breezing for the Asians.
Cuba finally began to chip away at the big Japanese lead scoring twice against submarine reliever Shunsuke Watanabe in the sixth on an error and three hits.
With southpaw Adiel Palma keeping the Japanese bats in check between the fifth and eighth, Cuba got within a run in the bottom of the eighth on a two run homer by Frederich Cepeda. Suddenly the runaway was 6-5 and millions of fans on the island had come alive.
But Japan’s star closer Akinori Otsuka was brought in to put out the fire and that’s exactly what he did, ending the eighth with two outs in a blink of an eye. Cuba would have one more chance.
However, the top of the ninth proved similar to the top of the first, and Japan took a 10-5 lead, scoring four runs on four hits and two walks against four Cuban pitchers in another seemingly endless inning. The writing was on the wall and Otsuka finished the job by striking out Michel Enriquez and Yulieski Gorriel after giving up a run on a double by catcher Ariel Pestano and an RBI hit by Paret to make it 10-6, the final score.
Baseball in Cuba a Year after the Classic
A year after the Classic, the Cuban baseball league is nearing the end of its 46th regular Season since the triumph of the 1959 revolution. It is here where Major League quality baseball is played without the financial incentive. A total of 16 teams play 90 games to compete for eight slots in the best of five quarterfinals followed by the semifinal and final playoff games, both in best-of-seven series.
On March 1, last year’s champions, Industriales (38-29), who play out of the Latin American Stadium in the capital, were 2.5 games behind Sancti Spiritus (41-27) in Group B, closely followed by Habana (38-30), whose stadium is in Havana Province.
Group A is a walk with Pinar del Rio 10 games out in front of the Isle of Youth. Group C, is hotly contested between Ciego de Avila (38-30), which jumped off to a good size lead with a ten game winning streak early in the year, Villa Clara (38-30), Las Tunas (37-30) and Camaguey (36-32). Group D is led easily by last season’s runner ups, Santiago de Cuba (42-26), six games ahead of Granma.
Each night during the season one of the baseball games is televised on national TV. Furthermore, stadium prices range from 4 to 12 cents of a US dollar and good match ups draw big turnouts. Alcoholic beverages are not sold at Cuban stadiums but the conga drums and cornets liven up the spirited fans some of whom carry on loud one-way conversations with the players, not hesitating to praise or criticize their performance.
This seasons individual leaders as of Feb. 27 were Isle of Youth third baseman Michel Enriquez (.405 batting average); Yohenis Cespedes of Granma with 59 runs scored; Jorge Padron of Pinar del Rio with 94 hits; Joan Carlos Pedroso (Las Tunas) and Juan Carlos Linares (Habana) with 15 home runs, and Juan Carlos Linares with 56 RBIs.
Norberto Gonzalez (Cienfuegos) and Wilber Perez (Isle of Youth) lead the league with 10 victories, Ciro Silvino Lica with a 1.18 ERA, Jonder Martinez (Habana) with three shutouts; Adiel Palma (Cienfuegos) 81 strikeouts, and Vladimir Garcia (Ciego de Avila) with 12 saves.
Pedro Luis Lazo of Pinar del Rio won his 222nd career game and is 9-5 for the season.
The next important international competition for the Cuban national baseball team will be the Pan American Games this coming July in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. While the US won’t send its Major League players because of financial reasons, and the Venezuelans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans will not have many of their top players available for the same reason; the Cuban national team will be on hand to give as good a show as money can’t buy.