March 12, 2013 from Tokyo, Japan
For many it was the most devastating among a slew of painful eleventh-hour losses for recent editions of the once dominant but now somewhat tarnished Cuban national team. There have been many such defeats in recent years – the 2008 Olympic finals (versus Korea) in Beijing; the 2009 World Cup finale (USA) in Nettuno; the 2010 Pre-Mundial championship setback (with the Dominicans) in San Juan; and the final-edition 2011 World Cup gold medal loss (Netherlands) in Panama. These defeats reflect little more than the new world order of international baseball where talented but no longer untouchable Cuban teams are now forced play against some of the best young stars (and even seasoned veterans) drawn from North American professional ball clubs; the near misses do not (despite all the ceaseless wailings in the Cuban press) signal any major failings of the Cuban baseball system itself, or any catastrophic drop-off in the level of Cuban talent. This year’s Cuban Classic team showcased more top-level young prospects than any island squad of the past decade. True there was a visible shortage of normally strong Cuban pitching in the end, but the final reality is that we no longer live in 1970s or ‘80s world in which each opponent quakes and crumbles in the presence of the once unrivaled Cuban arsenal.
Both the positive and the negative here is the fact that Cuba is now the only country still playing in the Classic with only its home-grown and home-trained national talent. It is the single country to annually field an all-star squad from its domestic league that is a legitimate representative of its own special brand of national baseball. All other entrants boast a roster of players trained and honed by professional clubs in the United States or in Japan or Taiwan – some (like The Netherlands and Italy) field players from not one but several nations (players that can claim a birthright or other technical connection to the flag they briefly represent). The Dutch club that defeated Cuba twice here in Tokyo is in reality the team of the Dutch Antilles (of baseball-rich Curacao and Aruba) and has very little to do any longer with the improving but still sub-standard baseball league based each summer in the European country whose colors they wear. If the Cuban system has failed, it has failed only in its refusal to transform its national pastime into the same trans-national baseball business model designed and managed primarily to feed the economic interests of corporate MLB and its many branches (i.e. players, owners, agents and a huge support-system enterprise that peddles merchandise and memorabilia). That is to say that Cuba’s “failure” has been to not give up its special identity as an alternative and isolated baseball universe – as the home of a pure national sport employing no imported free-lane ballplayers. And for this writer at least, that is not much of a failure.
For those who grew up watching Linares and Kindelán and company win game after game played against university squads and clubs staffed largely with industrial league players, it is hard to let go of a world in which the Red Machine went unblemished year after year. Those easy victories of years gone by gave Cubans something of a false sense of pride in the stature of their native baseball. But the reality was that off the island no one paid much heed to those endless victories because they had little legitimacy in the outside world of professional baseball. Who did the Cubans beat back then with their crack squads wielding aluminum bats against 19 and 20 year old rivals?
The endless victory strings of the seventies and eighties and nineties were of course impressive enough, if only because this is a sport where no one normally wins at such a place in any level of competition. The string of Amateur World Series and later Olympic triumphs worked to establish the Cuban baseball mystique. But I have long contended that the greatest achievements of Cuba’s rich baseball heritage have come only with the victories of the past decade – no matter how much less frequent those triumphs have been. To finish second at each of the past three editions of the World Cup (IBAF tournaments showcasing both minor leaguers and former big leaguers) has held far more merit than all the first place banners gained in the “amateur” era editions of that tournament. And now to have won 13 of 20 total games in the three prestigious MLB Classics – the closest thing we have ever had to a true baseball world championship – is more remarkable still
This is all not to say that last night was not terribly disappointing. But disappointment does not have to signal total disaster. Monday night’s game was particularly heart wrenching since it was filled with so many lost opportunities, gut-tightening comebacks and collapses, and botched managerial tactics on the part of both teams. Much has been and will be made of some of Victor’s tactical moves. But many were not as foolish has they may have looked from afar. And it should be noted that the Dutch skipper (Hensley Meulens) also blundered on several occasions. He left several of his pitchers in the game too long, but yet in the end he escaped in the end as much by luck as anything else (and by the inevitable late-inning attrition in Cuban pitching).
Cuba fell behind early in the finale against the Dutch, just as they had in the Friday opener with the same rapidly improving Orange squad. But this time they fought back gamely on three different occasions (twice to tie and once to assume a brief eighth-inning lead) before running out of gas – and of quality pitching arms – in the final two disastrous innings. If Victor made a tactical mistake it was probably that he left Norberto in the game for one inning or at least one batter too long. It might have been more logical (with two down in the eighth and the tying tally at the plate) to bring in a veteran right-hander like Ismel Jiménez to face potent young big-leaguer Andrelton Simmons. Yet had Simmons popped out rather than stroking a game-tying two-run blast into the left field seats to shift the game’s momentum, or if Abreu or Cepeda had made contact in the fateful ninth when Cuba seemed on the verge of yet a fourth comeback (Gourriel standing on third with the potential game winner) we would all today be singing a very different tune about Mesa’s bold tactical maneuvers.
The loss was indeed a major setback on a couple of different accounts. There was, of course, a blown opportunity once more to send major shock waves throughout organized baseball by yet again reaching the final round and squaring off with big name major league professional stars in San Francisco. The result in Tokyo now also means a definite loss of the IBAF top world ranking held onto for so long despite the spate of recent second-place finishes in major international events. If the Americans reach the final round alongside Japan, both countries will surge ahead of the Cubans in the next IBAF polling. While most North American or Asian fans (focused on their own professional league play) play lead heed to the IBAF semi-annual world standing, the Cuban Federation has long celebrated those rankings as a major justification for its approach to world tournament play. That will now have to change. And finally, the bitter loss will also mean that Cuban fans will again have to endure a very long wait before another major opportunity presents itself – there is nothing on the immediate horizon to rebuild Cuban prestige more substantial than the 2015 Pan American Games penciled in for Toronto. There is still much exciting baseball now to be played back in Cuba; a tense National Series with a controversial experimental format will resume its pennant chase in another two weeks. But there are no further big-time international tournaments lying immediately around the corner that might quickly resurrect national baseball pride or reaffirm the entrenched Cuban approach to world tournament play.
But it is all too easy to overlook all the positives in the face of a lost World Baseball Classic dream, or a failed mission in Tokyo that came ever so close to reaping success but in the end wasn’t quite accomplished. It is easy to forget that Cuba mastered Japan this time around, blunting the Samurai sword so long stuck in the team’s backside. The 6-3 win over the defending world champions in Fukuoka was not at all a fluke but a convincing demonstration of Cuban talent. And the general consensus of professional observers over here (especially the big league scouting community with which I have communicated daily) was that Cuba was by a significant margin the best team to be found in the WBC’s Asian pool. Yet the best team on paper doesn’t always win; the baseball sometimes takes very funny bounces. Single games and even single innings and not lengthy series determine champions and there is no margin for untimely lapses in performance. The Cuban record in this Classic was again 4-2, identical to the mark in 2009, but this time the Cuban squad came much closer to the prize. In San Diego the 2009 squad was never competitive in either game against the dominant Japanese. The overall record for Cuba now stands at 13-7, one of the best of all WBC entrants over three tournaments. The Americans, Dominicans and Dutch all currently sport WBC records that are approximately the same or even a notch below the Cubans. To date Cuba is still one of only three countries to reach the WBC championship game (although either one or two others will join that limited fraternity in San Francisco). The overall 13-7 Cuban tournament record is a rather remarkable achievement in itself considering that the Red Machine remains the only team in the field that attempts to play with only its perhaps somewhat outdated brand of undiluted national baseball.
The biggest plus side in Tokyo and Fukuoka was the fact that this particular team displayed more exciting young talent and fresh blood than any other Cuban squad of the past half-dozen years. José Fernandez, Yasmani Tomas, and Guillermo Heredia are as good as any young island-bred prospects to come on the scene in years. Friends of mine in the MLB scouting community raved about all three as the best all-around Cuban athletes in perhaps more than a decade (a recent decade, remember, that produced Céspedes, Chapman, Alexei Ramírez, Leonys Martin and several other marginal big leaguers). Andy Ibáñez played little here but impressed the pro scouts with his speed and his glue-fingered glove. Tomás (with clutch homers against Japan and Taiwan and the potential game-winning hit had the Cubans held on against the Dutch) already seems destined to be the next Alfredo Despaigne. And Bárbaro Arruebarruena would be a true budding big league defensive star were he now wearing any other country’s uniform. Only top young pitchers seem to be in short supply, although Racial Iglesias (a potential future closer for Team Cuba) and Diosdani Castillo showcased strong performances on several limited occasions.
Cuban ball clubs are obviously now playing in this special event and all other top international tournaments with the cards horribly stacked against them. Not only are they without big-league trained reinforcements, but a perceptible (hopefully temporary) dip in the level of Cuban League pitching has put talented young Cuban batters behind the “eight ball” once they have to make overnight adjustments when facing so many proficient big league and Japanese League hurlers. This fact alone has made the performance of the Cuban offense over six games here in Japan all the more impressive. Lost in the tears accompanying defeat was not only Cuba’s 4-2 showing (one less loss than the Dutch in the first two rounds) but also the team’s ability to outscore its six opponents by a 45-18 margin. Little consolation perhaps, but the Dutch have actually been outscored by the opposition over their own seven contests here in Asia.
My Facebook page has been filled in the last twenty-four hours with many suggestions that the solution for the Cuba baseball establishment is now to abandon its long-standing approach and begin fielding squads filled with the big leaguers and minor leaguers who have lately abandoned the country. For me personally this would be a poor solution to the current status of the Cuban national sport – even if it were in fact a realistic possibility any time in the near future. First and foremost, this would not be a move that was fair to so many talented island players who dream of wearing the uniform of Team Cuba. What will be the spirit and the future of Cuban baseball if Ismel Jiménez and José Fernández and Yasmani Tomás are left back at home so that Chapman and Ramirez and Céspedes can represent the league they once abandoned in order to cast their lot with the fortunes to be reaped in organized baseball? Just how many young players would remain at home to staff the Cuban League once that began happening? Is it worth one or two more wins abroad to have the Cuban “national” squad transformed into the Cuban-American All-Stars and thus to become no different in flavor from the Dutch (read Dutch Antilles here) or Dominican or Venezuela big league enterprises. For me any such move would rob Cuban baseball of the special status that attracts me and so many others to Cuba’s alternative baseball universe. For me the excitement lies in seeing Cuba’s special brand of baseball challenge the big leaguers and do so well, even if they don’t win total victory in each and every outing. Do we really want to transform the Cuban WBC team from one whose main fan base is found in Havana and Santiago and Pinar del Río and Camagüey into one whose new epicenter of fan interest lies in Miami?
It might be some consolation for fans back in Cuba – and those in other corners of the globe supporting the Cuban team – that most of the MLB-connected people I interacted with here in Tokyo and Fukuoka were genuinely pulling for the Cubans to make it on to San Francisco. And the support that drove this odd Cuban fandom in MLB circles was certainly not tied any hope by pro talent scouts that there might be player defections in the States to enrich MLB coffers. The reigning belief was rather that the Cubans play a more exciting and entertaining brand of baseball, that they showcased here some of the very best players on the Classic stage, and finally that they would likely have put on the best show in San Francisco against the Dominicans, Americans or Puerto Ricans.
The disappointment in not getting to San Francisco will now linger and it will take some time for many to escape their present disillusionment. Since Cubans in great numbers largely live for their baseball and for the successes of the team that carries their banner, this is a most difficult pill to swallow. Many on the island were skeptical in the beginning that there would be much success this time around on Asian territory – entering the Third Classic the Japanese and Koreans seemed invincible and many were already fearful of the Dutch. But expectations soared after the early win over Japan in Fukuoka, only then to quickly crash once again here in Tokyo. For many on the island, Cuban pride and self-image is intimately tied to the national team – if it does not win then the nation and the business of being Cuban has somehow failed. It is an understandable passion, but at the same time it is a not very realistic one.
There are many of us on the outside of Cuba looking in whose love of Cuban baseball is not tied solely to winning – as much as we may take pride in the victories. We love these players and the league they represent because they are the last vestige of a pure baseball – a sport that is still sport and not big business or staged television entertainment, a game played for passion and not merely for dollars. Cuban baseball is still staged for the fans and not for the commercial profit of itinerant athletes, tycoon club owners, exploitive player agents, or numerous other hangers-on who feed off the financial bonanzas the organized game now brings them. For those of us holding that sentiment a few more wins earned by a handful of “re-imported” players – big leaguers who now represent the business enterprises of the Reds or Dodgers or Yankees and return to the Cuban jersey for only two weeks every four years – would hardly be a welcomed trade-off. The Cubans have something the Dutch and the Dominicans and the Puerto Ricans do not. Their players will now return home to provide an entertaining and passion-filled domestic-based spectacle. The bulk of the Dutch and Dominican and Italian and Canadian stars will soon disperse to their North American pro clubs and thus transform from “Dutch players” or “Italian” players into Yankees or Dodgers or Orioles. For these athletes, the homeland and their home-grown baseball will quickly become a distant memory.
In the final analysis, the saddest aspect of the Cuban loss was perhaps the realization that 11 million or so passionate Cuban fans (to say nothing of 11 million self-appointed “managers”) suffered through each pitch and each base hit and each managerial ploy. Back in the land of dikes and wooden shoes and soccer madness I would be rather surprised if more than several thousand total fans even noticed the announcement of the proud “honkbal” triumph in their morning press. Overall the Dutch sports fandom has about the same level of passion about baseball as the Cuban enthusiasts do about soccer. If there were mass enthusiastic cheers for the Dutch squad breaking out anywhere on Monday night they were probably centered mostly in that country’s Caribbean colonies.