The road to a championship showdown of Olympic Baseball in Beijing has barely begun, and there will be numerous surprises undoubtedly lying in wait somewhere along the route. But after only a single day of gripping action several nagging questions seem already to have been satisfactorily answered. And several other perplexing issues have also already now raised their ugly heads. If we know more now about the readiness of the Cubans we seem to know less about the state of preparation surrounding the American camp. And if we have been again convinced of just how entertaining a spectacle Olympic Baseball truly is, we remain perplexed about why so few American fans even know that the Olympics features their purported “national pastime” or that their own national team is fighting for glory in Beijing.
Foremost among the now-answered questions are those surrounding the readiness of Team Cuba to defend its Athens crown (and thus make it four out of five Olympic titles); another involves the suspected ease with which USA and Japanese pros might be able to sweep through this year’s Olympic field. Then there is the matter of the true reality of an apparent stark division between contenders and pretenders in this year’s field. And finally, we may now at last have put to rest issues involving the “spectacle quality” of this year’s potential swan song appearance for baseball as an Olympic event. By contrast, the new issues that seemed to have popped up on Day One are at least all of the following: Was USA Baseball really serious enough in its efforts to paste together a crack lineup of AAA prospects prepared to atone for the embarrassing elimination from Athens 2004 Olympic competitions? In light of Cuba’s solid victory on Wednesday morning against the consensus tournament front runner, will rival managers continue to dismiss Pacheco’s squad as overrated and thus continue to run right-handed starting pitchers out to challenge a potent Cuban batting order whose only weakness seems to be facing talented southpaws? Finally, is anyone among the hordes of diamond fans and media types back home in the USA really paying any attention at all to this stellar event? Or, sadly enough, do legions of provincial North American fans actually share curmudgeon Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bill Conlon’s sardonic opinions that the ballclubs in this year’s Olympic venue are “the Lost Boys of Beijing” and that all you need to know about baseball’s final scheduled Olympic appearance is that 41-year-old Rheal Cormier pitches for Team Canada (i.e. there are no real stars illuminating the Olympic diamonds)?
Let’s turn first to the issues resolved or clarified by last night’s and this morning’s entertaining Beijing bill of fare. Despite the weeks of relentless chest-beating and hair-pulling back in Havana over the China-bound Red Machine’s seemingly lackluster exhibition performances in Haarlem and Korea, those of us who have been writing time and again that this was indeed one of the most talented Cuban squads ever assembled have now seemingly had the last word, at least at tournament’s outset. Today’s impressive 4-2 Cuban victory over pre-tourney favorite Japan can hardly be taken as any guarantee that the defending champions will reclaim gold or even reach the finals for the umpteenth straight time. But today’s game had to convince the biggest Doubting Thomas (or Doubting Tomas) that this is a quality team–carefully selected, well managed, highly motivated, and unquestionably prepared to take its place among the tournament favorites. Four years ago in Athens (lest Cuban fans forget) a similar Dream Team of Japanese pro all-stars shut down the eventual champions managed by Higinio Velez by the comfortable count of 6-3; Cuba may only have won last time around in Athens because the Japanese overlooked the upstart Australians and stumbled 1-0 in the semifinals. But this new Team Cuba was not about to fall into a hole in early pool play action. Timely slugging by newcomers Alexei Bell (double, triple, and two runs scored) and Alfredo Despaigne (three for four with three clutch RBIs) sent out a strong signal that Cuba was back in top form and that the stumbles of July in Holland meant nothing (as some of us have been repeatedly saying ad nauseam). Additional keys to the solid Cuban victory were the stellar outings of veterans Norge Luis Vera (6 innings, 7 hits, but only two runs) and closer Pedro Luis Lazo (3 innings of shutout baseball); this was truly the Lazo and Vera of seasons gone by. Cuba still has a tough hill to climb on the road to defending its coveted title. But this team has now certainly gotten off to a superb running start.
Regarding pre-tournament favorites Japan and Team USA, neither Davy Johnson’s nor Senichi Hoshino’s forces can now be looking very lightly at the remaining half-dozen days of pool play action. Both clubs should still have a fairly easy route to the semifinals, most likely needing only four wins apiece to get there. This fact in one respect makes losses like those suffered today relatively meaningless in the big picture, although such defeats are never healthy for team momentum. But any assumptions that a Dream Team of Japan’s top Central League and Pacific League headliners, or a crack lineup jammed with American big league prospects in waiting, would stand a full cut above either Cuba’s veteran National Series all-stars or Korea’s homegrown KBO talent, have quickly been proven ill-founded. Japan played a solid game against Cuba but certainly didn’t measure up to the effort against a similar Cuban lineup four years back in Athens. Team USA’s ninth-inning collapse against the less-touted Koreans likely proved even more unsettling for the American camp. After roaring back to take the lead with three clutch runs in the ninth, the Americans let the game get away when closer Jeff Stevens dug his own grave with a wild pickoff toss to first, thus setting up a game-winning sacrifice fly by Jongwook Lee. Twice the Americans blew leads in this game, and another sloppy throw in the bottom of the ninth (to the plate, by second baseman Jayson Nix) also allowed the game’s fateful tying run to scamper home. It was hardly an artistic start for the Americans and hardly the kind promised by their “Road to Beijing” publicity campaign advertising revenge for past Olympic failures.
Regarding the overall balance of this year’s Olympic field, there is little doubt now about the fine line separating the Big Four squaring off in opening night matches. Its is tougher to get much of a line on the four morning competitors, since neither Chinese Taipei nor Canada were very severely tested in their easy victories over, respectively, The Netherlands (5-0) and host China (10-0). Canada will be better tested tomorrow by Cuba, as will the Taiwanese when they square off with Hoshino’s regrouping Japanese ball club. As has been the subject of much speculation all long, the Dutch and Chinese squads are the apparent ordained also-rans in this field: Holland boasts nearly the same lineup as the one that went to the WBC and last year’s Taiwan World Cup, and on the whole the Dutch bats have slowed and the Dutch arms have weakened with age. And China is proving with each international tournament appearance that a world-class baseball program can not be achieved in a mere handful of years, by sheer force of will, or by influx of millions in MLB-provided seed money. On the issue of entertaining spectacle, anyone who remained glued to the NBC on-line video feeds of the four games (which were also streamed on www.baseballdecuba.com) must surely have been convinced of the charm and competitiveness of “no-name” international Olympic-style baseball. And the Olympic baseball video experience has a special bonus to offer: namely, streamed video where the only audio is “crowd noise” and where babbling “talking heads” don’t ruin a baseball-pure video experience.
Regarding novel issues arising out of this morning’s games, the quality of Team USA has to be the foremost puzzle. Korea may well have been somewhat underrated; the surprising quality of the Korean team seemed to be signaled last week with a 15-3 knockout exhibition romp over Cuba in Seoul. And yet there certainly have been shortcomings already exposed in this USA lineup, one which may not be that much stronger than the collegiate all-star outfit which romped undefeated through Haarlem and the World University Games in July. Experienced voices, like Baseball America‘s John Manual–who has gone on record as doubting that this American squad represents the best possible minor league talent corps USA baseball and MLB might have come up with–may not have been only crying in the wilderness or whistling in the wind. While the bullpen (Mike Koplove, Kevin Jepsen, Brian Duensing) was strong in the middle innings against Korea, this team has been giving up more then a comfortable number of runs (even during its four-game exhibition series with Team Canada in Durham). The Americans are talented on the bench and in the bullpen and thus should still be a contender, but with Cuba, Canada, and Japan still on the horizon they are certainly going to have to up their game considerably. The key to international tournament victories is protecting late-game leads, and this was a glaring weakness for the Americans on opening night.
There may have been nothing more unexpected on opening day than Senichi Hoshino’s choice of an ace right-hander to open against a Cuban lineup that he had scouted so thoroughly in Haarlem and that has displayed a frequent propensity to slump against stellar southpaws. There was also the added factor that Yu Darvish was once before bombed by the Cubans during the World Junior Championships back in 2004–a psychological factor if nothing else. But perhaps more surprising than Hoshino’s pitching choice was the word choices earlier in the day by Canadian skipper Terry Puhl. Commenting on the Team Canada website in the aftermath of a knockout victory over lowly China, Puhl had the following observations about the Cubans, his Day Two opponents: “They’re beatable! Everybody makes them out to be such a great team but I’m not in that camp. If we play well and pitch well, we can beat them. But it is going to be a dog fight.” Certainly Canada has potential to but up a fight against anyone in the field and even spring a major upset or two along the way. Remember the Canadian team versus the Americans in the 2006 WBC. But Japan’s Hoshino has already looked past the Cubans (when he claimed that it was the Americans he was pointing toward facing in the finals) and Puhl may well be next in line. We are not in Haarlem any more, Dorothy!
And finally a word on the dripping sarcasm of Philadelphia columnist Bill Conlon, whose Monday column (“You Won’t Be Star Struck by Olympic Baseball”) suggested, in brief, that if there were no big league celebrities on the stage in Beijing then the games were hardly worthy of anyone’s time and trouble. Conlon does, without doubt, reflect mainstream thinking about the “national pastime” (which or course is now more truly the Japanese and Cuban “national pastime” than an American one, but that is yet another matter). For stateside fans games seem to hold value in direct proportion to the publicized salaries of their participants. Could anyone watching today’s Korea-USA and Japan-Cuba matches have found a more entertaining pure baseball game anywhere among their MLB-streaming choices last night? I may be in the distinct minority (along with millions of fans in Cuba, Japan, Korea and at other venues where they follow the international game still played without MLB celebrities), but I really don’t think so. Of course I could never convince Mr. Conlon because I am quiet sure he didn’t watch.