At this point it came as no surprise when Thursday morning’s anticipated gold medal clash between Cuba and Team USA (along with the Mexico-Nicaragua bronze medal shootout) fell victim to yet another night of heavy rains; downpours in Rio Wednesday evening left both Rock City Stadium fields entirely unsuitable for early morning play. The only international tournament in recent memory which suffered as badly from excessive downpours and poorly designed stadium facilities was the 2005 World Cup event staged in the Dutch cities of Rotterdam, Haarlem, Almere, Eindhoven and Amsterdam. On that earlier occasion, Team USA elected to forfeit its fifth-place consolation game rather than play on a slick field in Amsterdam and risk the health of top-dollar big-league prospects. The Cubans also slogged through a near monsoon to upend Panama 15-2 in their own frigid semifinal. And both medal games (Rotterdam for gold, and Haarlem for bronze) were contested on soaked venues that were left in swamp-like conditions by days of rain and apparently inadequate drainage. But at least in Rotterdam and Haarlem there were few delays and no cancellations.
The anticipated Cuba-USA showdown has now been penciled in for Friday at 8 am EST, but that time slot is still up in the air depending on the amount of rainfall that could conceivably again attack Rio this evening–for the fourth consecutive day. A smooth and uncontroversial conclusion to this much-plagued tournament is now more questionable with each passing day and each further climate delay. Earlier in the week USA Baseball spokepersons hinted that the Americans might indeed abandon the event if it stretched past its original Thursday concluding date (which it now has). Team USA is scheduled to open a five-game exhibition series with the Chinese national team in Hank Aaron Stadium (Mobile, Alabama) on Monday evening, before hosting the Dutch national squad in North Carolina next weekend, and then heading to Rotterdam for the August 2-12 World Port Tournament event.
Today’s postponement does allow some space here for a number of personal reflections on what has been a chaotic and sometimes downright embarrassing tournament throughout its first rain-sogged six days. The biggest story, of course, has been the uncooperative elements, alongside the inadequate baseball facilities at Rock City’s dual stadiums. Built on the site of a popular venue for rock and roll concerts, the ballparks display poor drainage, and no covering (itself not such a negative for baseball purists, but a disadvantage nonetheless when big-league-quality field-covering tarpaulins are absent. Another Achilles’ heel of the event–often the case in such Olympic-style baseball matches–has been the absence of the luxury of build-in free days for make-up games during the tightly scheduled six-day event. Most disastrous of all, however, has been the failed lighting system in the complex which has dictated day games only and made nearly impossible the completion of any contests commencing after 2 pm.
The biggest surprise of the week has been the performance of the defending champion and perennial powerhouse Cuban team. Not the fact that the Cubans lost their opener to Panama and thus had to come from behind to make the finals. Certainly not the fact that they are now poised to take the field for their tenth straight Pan Am Games gold medal clash. The surprise, indeed, is that Cuba has accomplished both of these things with quite miniscule offensive production from their potent lineup of sluggers featuring Yulieski Gourriel (Baseball America’s choice as the best non-MLB prospect in the 2006 WBC), Freddie Cepeda (an awesome slugger who has been the team’s biggest offense weapon and truest clutch performer in international play since the departure of Omar Linares), Ariel Pestano (offensive hero and MVP of both the Athens Olympics and 2003 Pan Ams affair), Osmani Urrutia (a lifetime .370-plus hitter who has batted over .400 in five of the last six Cuban League seasons), and a slew of other veterans including Goirvis Duvergel, Yoandry Urgelles and Eduardo Paret. The Cubans have homered (three times) only against Mexico; in yesterday’s semifinals they left five runners stranded in the final two at-bats, when insurance runs seemed necessary if not vital; Cepeda and Urrutia had their first hits of the week in yesterday’s semifinal; and the team batting average has hovered near .250–a shocking fact no matter how bad the visibility might admittedly be in the inadequate Rio venue. (I saw these same Cuban hitters annihilate Panamanian pitching in a 2005 Rotterdam World Cup match in which it was so misty that the mound was hardly visible to those of us seated in the press box!)
Cuba has won only because of stellar pitching which has emerged from some surprising quarters. Lazo has been rock-solid in two relief outings as universally expected. But the biggest hero to date has been young southpay Elier Sanchez (pictured here) who blanked Nicaragua for seven frames in the game that pushed Cuba to the finals. Even in his losing opening effort against Panama, Sanchez tossed four shutout frames before being victimized by a single bad inning–the only frame in four contests in which Cuban pitching has allowed more than a single tally. Also responsible for strong permormances on the hill have been crafy veteran Adiel Palma (ten Ks against Mexico), who has often sumbled in big international games in the past, and rookie reliever Aroldis Chapman, who closed out yesterday’s vital victory in polished fashion.
Unsurprising have been the performances of the American, Panamanean, Dominican or Mexican teams. Staffed with a squad of talented and hungry young college stars, the Americans have been adequate even if not brilliant. They have also benefitted from an opening round assignment in the tournament’s admittedly weak division. It is doubtful that Team USA would be 4-0 if its qualifying round games had included Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and Panama. The strength of Team USA will only be more measurable after the now-delayed gold medal shootout. Several days back I discussed the regular and almost anticipated total collapses of Panama in numerous international tournaments, a history which seems to get more desperate with each passing summer and fall. Panama never seems to rise to the occasion when its back is up against the wall. Mexico tends always to accomplish what the Panamanians never pull off–especially when playing the Americans. Recall that it was Mexico that grew stronger with each outing and dumped Team USA from contention in both the 2004 Olympic Qualifying tournament (Panama City) and the more recent 2006 WBC. The Dominicans with a roster containing a healthy (more likely unhealthy) dose of big league retirees (Raul Mondesi, Luis Polonia, Jose Offerman) has once again proven in Rio that the level of these international tournaments is now quite elevated and that major league "has-beens" can now longer hope to successfully complete in such Olympic venues.
Tomorrow the final chapter will finally unfold, unless of course there is still more rain. We seem to be rapidly sapproaching the moment when the biggest question might not be Cuba’s readiness (devoid of its much celebrated hitting of the past) to ring up a tenth straight crown, but rather Team USA’s willingness (locked into a money-making travel schedule back home) to stick around long enough to defend the so-often tarnished international baseball image of Old Glory.