Might This Be A Final Waterloo, or a Surprising Watershed Year for Cuba in Tokyo?

Tokyo (March 6, 2017)

Cuba has unquestionably been the biggest overall surprise of the first three World Baseball Classic editions. Team Israel may already be well down the road to changing that scenario during the first couple of days of the current renewal for MLB’s increasingly popular “true, legitimate” baseball world series. But across the first three high profile showcase events it has been the Cubans who have written the most unexpected fairy tales and turned the largest numbers of sceptics into true believers. 

Initially, and most memorably, there was a shocking 2006 run to the finals that now stands as the acme of the island’s much-celebrated century-and-a-half-long baseball history. The 2006 performance – especially a surprise 3-1 semifinal victory over a potent star-studded Dominican contingent – rubber-stamped Cuba’s earlier-debatable claims to prominence on the international baseball scene. That second-place finish in the earliest “Classic” clearly silenced all those naysayers whose familiar mantra had always had been that Cuba’s dominance on the international tournament scene lacked legitimacy simply because it was only earned with aluminum bats and against raw collegiate or understaffed semipro nines – never in clashes with actual big leaguers. And despite successive failures to again reach the tournament’s final four in 2009 and 2013, a 6-0 first-round mark in those years and a current 13-7 overall three-year ledger has done little to dull the Cuban luster. In brief, no country has so far benefitted more from the novel MLB-sponsored showcase experiment in internationalizing the so-called American national pastime.

The Cubans also still remain a truly unique outlier in this prestigious tournament featuring mainly big league headliners from the world’s leading outposts of the bat and ball sport. The Caribbean islanders still field the only team that truly represents a national baseball federation and a national baseball system untainted by any contacts with the MLB-controlled version of the professional game. Although exiled Cuban fans housed mainly in South Florida, and even many back on the communist island itself, now repeatedly fantasize about a “unified” Cuban team stocked with former island leaguers like Céspedes, Abreu, Chapman and Yasmani Tomás among others, the Cuban Federation remains steadfast in its dedication to fielding a squad of loyalist athletes who have pledged fidelity to a home-grown socialist sports system. A Cuban ball club composed of current big leaguers who have chosen to abandon dedication to a national flag for the promised riches of North American professionalism would indeed be more in tune with those clubs now representing other nations. But such an MLB-oriented lineup would also rob Cuba of its unique charm as lone representative of an alternative baseball universe – one where playing for the glory of the homeland is a lifetime dedication and not merely a brief “once every fourth year” pro career interruption.

Cuban Players Pre-WBC Press Conference

The very first WBC event now stands as the unarguable highlight of a lengthy and overly rich island baseball history. Nothing from the more than half-century of professional winter league play that ended in 1960, or the following almost half-century of an amateur sport largely hidden from North American fans, had previously put Cuba so squarely on the international baseball map. Of course there were some significant breaks along the way during that first head-to-head performance versus seasoned big leaguers. The failure of a Panamanian batter to accept an apparent bases-loaded hit-by-pitch in the ninth inning allowed an unlikely escape from the first round in San Juan; and there was also a near miracle, rain-soaked throw to the plate by Yulieski Gourriel that keyed a crucial upset victory over Puerto Rico, thus launching Cuba into the San Diego finals. But such strokes of pure luck aside, it was that near-championship run of 2006 that beyond all else established Cuba’s reputation in the modern baseball world. More recent successes of defecting Cuban stars now in the big leagues – the rookie slugging José Abreu, the flashy if sometimes flakey performances of Yasiel Puig, the flame-throwing Aroldis Chapman and the power-packed Yoenis Céspedes – have only added the proverbial icing on the cake for Cuba’s now firmly entrenched baseball stature.

A lasting irony was that Cuban squads in the two subsequent editions have been by almost every measure better teams than the successful 2006 outfit. But the early string of luck would run out by 2009 and 2013 and Cuban clubs could never quite climb later hurdles posed by their two international nemeses – Japan and The Netherlands. In 2009 in San Diego it was stellar Japanese pitching that victimized a suddenly impotent Cuban offense on consecutive occasions. Four years later a Victor Mesa-managed club waltzed through the first round in Fukuoka (even handling heavily favored Japan by a convincing 6-3 count) but then collapsed twice against the Dutch, ultimately squandering a 2-run seventh-inning lead in the crucial deciding rematch. The defeats in 2009 in San Diego were sobering. Those in 2013 were more devastating still as most MLB scouts and international media experts on hand considered Cuba to be the most deeply talented club found anywhere in the two opening Asian rounds

The final meltdown against the Dutch – when skipper Mesa left a tiring Norberto González on the mound precisely one inning too long – was a bitter pill for Cuban supporters to swallow. And there were more debilitating long-term implications of that loss as well. Six of the eight 2013 starters and several additional reserves – most notably José Abreu, José Miguel Fernández, Guillermo Herredia, Yasmani Tomás and Erisbel Arruebarrena – were soon to abandon the country. The Dutch loss may have played a rather central role in that attrition since much luster had suddenly disappeared from a previously idolized national squad of relentless winners. And headliners like Abreu, Tomás, Gourriel and Heredia had also now tasted a brand of individual success (learning that they could play in the highest levels) that they might well sustain simply by pursuing their future fortunes in big leagues arenas.

This year presents a very different scenario for the Cubans. The bulk of top stars from only a few years back are gone, as Alfredo Despaigne was quick to point out during an on-field interview with Toronto big-league broadcaster Buck Martinez during Monday morning’s Tokyo Dome workout. Veterans like Despaigne, an aging Cepeda, catcher Frank Camilo Morejón, and pitchers Vladimir García (the starter in the final 2013 loss), Yoelkis Cruz, Yosvany Torres and Jonder Martínez are still firmly in the fold. But Cuba is now a decided underdog and far from a sure bet for second round action as in previous events. Suddenly both Australia (always seemingly a tough challenge) and upstart China (a true sleeping giant) are expected to provide major first-round roadblocks. The pressure now is perhaps merely to rescue some lost luster for a Cuban baseball enterprise largely devastated and eviscerated over the past handful of years. 

Most fan interest and most fan chatter now surrounding the slumping Cubans focusses on the vain hope for a unified Cuban team. That scenario would mean more victories and maybe even a coveted championship to titillate Cuban boosters on both sides of the Straits of Florida. But such a development would severely punish Cuban stars who have remained loyal to the domestic league and also perhaps remove any final motivation for their staying at home. It would also signal an end to a Cuban baseball system that has uniquely remained a sole baseball alternative universe entirely independent of Major League Baseball’s corporate structures. Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the Netherlands have never boasted that distinction with their handfuls of imports from abroad in the case of the Asian circuits, or a vibrant talent font of future big leaguers cultivated in Aruba and Curacao by The Netherlands. 

Admittedly the prospects are not altogether bright this time around for a deep Cuban run. In some respects we have somehow reverted back to the eve of the inaugural Classic in 2006, when the Cubans were still largely unknown pretenders not deemed worthy of much respect despite a half-century domination of lesser and often off-the-radar international events. This year’s squad arrives with expectations not much higher than those attached to the inaugural 2006 team featuring a young Yulieski Gourriel, an as-yet-unappreciated Freddie Cepeda, and a lumbering and flame-throwing Pedro Luis Lazo. But the history of what happened in 2006 cannot be entirely dismissed as Cuba now embarks on a new frontier. The WBC has been an event characterized from Day One by shocking developments – the failures of the American “Dream Teams” in the first and third editions, the unanticipated early ouster of the touted Dominicans at the hands of the upstart Dutch in 2009, as well as the Dutch run past Cuba to the finals four years ago, and Cuba’s own eye-opening performance a decade back in the inaugural edition. And then as a stark reminder of the tournament’s unpredictable nature, there is last night’s upset of host Korea by debut performer Israel in this year’s Seoul lid-lifter. The WBC from the start has been a nail-biting tournament defined by its surprises. That is in fact its very charm and its most legitimate boasting point.

In short, despite all the recent defections and setbacks, the usually overflowing Cuban wellspring of constantly renewing talent is hardly empty this time around. Veteran manager Carlos Marti appears to possess the knack of getting more out of his teams than his WBC predecessors Higinio Vélez and Victor Mesa. And while there are numerous new faces this is also largely a seasoned and veteran team. There is a stable of pitchers boasting plenty of international experience. Also a pair of top sluggers – Despaigne and Cepeda – are still around and they are reinforced by some talented if not-as-heralded role players like infielders Alexander Ayala and Yurisbel Gracial and speedy outfielders Roel Santos and Yoelkis Céspedes – 19-year-old brother of big-league star Yoenis. There may be some surprising new heroes emerging, especially Ayala in the infield, Céspedes in the outfield, and Lázaro Blanco on the mound. And in the speed department this teams is also stronger than any of its three Cuban WBC forerunners, itself a not insignificant factor that lends itself well to a short-tournament format. One should not be fooled by a lack of victories during just-completed exhibitions in Korea and Taipei, and here in Osaka. Cuba might yet make considerable noise on the main stage in Tokyo. After all, we have been there before.

 

Peter Bjarkman has been covering BaseballdeCuba.com for 10 years with his columns and on-the-scene reports. Peter is a senior writer and author of the popular MLB blog, "Bjarkman's Latino and Cuban League Baseball History Page." Bjarkman is a winner of THE SPORTING NEWS-SABR Baseball Research Award, and a finalist for SPITBALL magazine's CASEY AWARD (for "Baseball Book of the Year"). His 1994 study, BASEBALL WITH A LATIN BEAT: A HISTORY OF THE LATIN AMERICAN GAME (McFarland), earned the Macmillan-SABR Baseball Research Award, also this year Peter won the Henry Chadwick Award for his contributions to baseball. Bjarkman's A HISTORY OF CUBAN BASEBALL, 1864-2006 is considered the seminal book on the Cuban national pastime. Peter will be covering the 2017 World Baseball Classic for BaseballdeCuba.com directly from Japan.