In a surprise announcement released this afternoon in Havana, USA Baseball has reported the renewal of a long suspended “international friendship series” between the American national collegiate all-stars and a similar squad composed of top-level Cuban collegiate all-stars. The much-anticipated series will commence with a full five-game set in Havana’s Latin American Stadium in early July of this year (July 5-9, 2012) and later be continued with the visit of the Cuban National team to American soil sometime during the summer of 2013 (no dates yet announced). This event will mark an exciting renewal of a home and away series that was popular during the 1980s and early 1990s but has remained dormant over the past decade and a half. The countries last met for such encounters in 1996 when Team Cuba captured a five-game exhibition set (three games to two) staged in various North American minor league parks. The last “friendly” visit of an American national collegiate squad to Cuba came way back in 1993, when the Cubans took two of three matches played in Sancti Spíritus.
The renewed series was announced during today’s press conference at venerable Latin American Stadium, during a meeting that featured IBAF Vice President Antonio “Tony” Castro, Cuban Baseball Federation President Higinio Vélez, USA Baseball CEO Paul Seiler, and USA Baseball national team general manager Eric Campbell. A formal letter of agreement was signed at the meeting by both Vélez and Seiler (also a member of the current IBAF executive committee). Tony Castro was quoted by the official USA Baseball Press Release as saying “This is a dream come true. We have been thinking of this for a long time. It will be positive for the players and fans in Cuba, and we look forward to going to the United States next year.”
Cuba and the USA stand as the world’s number one and number two baseball countries in the most recent IBAF international baseball rankings and the two have enjoyed a rich rivalry over the years, including a celebrated clash in the 2000 Sydney Olympics Gold Medal match, a pair of dramatic showdowns last fall during the Panama World Cup and Guadalajara Pan American Games, and memorable extra-inning tie-breaker clashes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 Tokyo World University Championships. Perhaps the most dramatic USA-Cuba clash ever witnessed came in the latter Tokyo event and was punctuated by Alfredo Despaigne’s heart-stopping walk-off three-run homer capping a rare “Schiller Rule” extra-inning shootout.
One most intriguing aspect of today’s press release was the announcement that the American and Cuban “collegiate” all-star squads meeting in Havana in early July would then both travel on to The Netherlands for the Haarlem Honkbal Week festivities two weeks later (July 13-22). Cuba had earlier announced its commitment to return to Haarlem this summer, where it has made regular appearances over the last several decades.
There has already been some speculation concerning what kind of a team Cuba might send to Haarlem this time around since no other major international events are on the docket for this coming summer. Earlier it was believed that a first-level and veteran Cuban national team might play in Haarlem (as in 2008, when the Cubans used that event as a tune-up for upcoming Beijing Olympics matches). But today’s news release seems to suggest that a Cuban “university national team” will take part – one including players under 26 years of age. Such a team would still likely be a powerhouse squad of National Series stars similar to the one winning the 2010 World University Games. The earlier Tokyo university squad featured Despaigne, Céspedes, Abreu and Miguel Alfredo González and other regular national team stalwarts. But a younger team of this type would obviously not involve older national team regulars such as Cepeda, Pestano, Yadier Pedroso, Héctor Olivera, Yulieski Gourriel, Alexei Bell (or now even Despaigne). The upcoming USA-Cuba collegiate series has thus already had its impact on the planning for this summer’s international baseball calendar.