Friday morning (6 am EST) Cuba squares off in a marquee semifinal showdown which will likely launch the final weekend of the island nation’s unparalleled saga in Olympic baseball. The game promises to be a classic featuring 20-year-old American phenom Stephen Strasburg squaring off against seasoned Cuban veteran Norge Luis Vera. Strasburg is tabbed as the number one choice in next June’s MLB amateur draft, while Vera is the only pitcher in IBAF World Cup history to win both the semifinal and final games in the same “amateur world series” tournament (Havana in 2003). The game will also likely represent a final trip around the basepaths in the glorious saga of Cuban Olympic baseball domination. If indeed the IBAF leadership is successful is having baseball reinstated for the 2016 or 2020 games, it will obviously no longer be the game we have long known and cherished. And if Cuba returns to the Olympic baseball wars eight or twelve years hence, they will most certainly not return to the same sport they celebrated in Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens or Beijing. The IBAF brain trust has already gone a long way toward ruining Olympic baseball this month in Beijing with its highly unpopular and game-altering tie-breaking rule which mirrors soccer’s penalty-kick sudden death scenario. Several crucial games in this year’s tournament have already been decided by a regulation designed to shorten games by gifting free baserunners and allowing managers to readjust their lineups during extra-inning contests. And now on the horizon is an announced IBAF plan to permit the four qualifying teams to swap their rosters for new lineups of star big leaguers once medal round play begins. The latest proposed tweaking of the rules will supposedly draw larger TV audiences but at the same time tilt the playing field heavily in favor of American teams. It will fulfill the IOC demands for “the best players in the world” in their Olympic venues by repeating the 1992 Barcelona “NBA Dream Team” phenomena. The difference of course is that NBA rosters provided enough international stars to maintain the semblance of competitive balance in a five-man sport. But an application to baseball (especially with the “big boys” coming in only for the final round) will tilt the diamond in an American and Dominican directions and leave the Asians, Europeans and Cubans watching from the sidelines. (For the full argument on this topic see my August 21 posting on www.baseballdecuba.com).
So tomorrow’s USA-Cuba showdown promises not only to be a memorable game on the field of play but also a most unfortunate historic landmark as well. This will likely be final bow for the Cuban national team that has been the very lifeblood of Olympic and international baseball for nearly a full half-century. It is a game therefore well worth the watching. And for those to want to see it it is available live and on-line (6 am EST) through the NBC Olympic feed on both http://www.nbcolympics.com/tv_and_online_listings/zone=ET/sport=BB/index.html and www.baseballdecuba.com. Don’t miss it, for now promises to be the final great hurrah of legitimate Olympic baseball.