Some Final Perspectives on the Third World Baseball Classic
The third edition of the World Baseball Classic – MLB’s slowly-growing attempt at providing a diamond equivalent for FIFA’s celebrated soccer World Cup – is now in the history books. The cheering and speculation and endless debate are now all put to rest in the wake of the most polished, successful and entertaining WBC to date; and perhaps it is now time for some final thoughts and perspectives from a writer who has witnessed each of Team Cuba’s twenty Classic games from a front row press box seat. For the second consecutive time millions of Cuban fans were deeply disappointed by the failure of the current Red Machine squad to duplicate the miracle run of 2006 and thus reach the tournament’s final round. That stinging disappointment was perhaps especially bitter this time around since the final crucial second-round setback came not at the hands of the celebrated Japanese but rather against the undervalued Dutch – a rival that Cuban squads once beat up with almost boring regularity.
This dismay at the final Cuban loss in Tokyo and the consequent failure to reach San Francisco is perhaps understandable enough, but it also serves to obscure two essential facts surrounding the islanders’ WBC resume: first and foremost, that this year’s ouster came at the hands of a big-league-studded Dutch roster the equal of any Japanese squads from earlier Classics, and secondly that this year’s Cuban edition played far better in Fukuoka and Tokyo than did the earlier Cuban clubs sent to San Juan, Mexico City and San Diego. In March 2009 Cuba was never close in its pair of round-two defeats at the hands of superior Nippon pitching. This time both games with the Dutch might have gone either way in the end; both were lost on late-inning home runs served up in each case by a single bad offering from two of Cuba’s most reliable bullpen aces.
I have been accused time and again by my critics in Havana and Miami of overhyping Cuba’s Classic teams simply because of what some see as my blind love for Cuban baseball. The irony here, of course, is that it is the same blind love that also repeatedly keeps Cuban partisans back in Havana and across the rest of the island from themselves seeing their favorites objectively; it is their own provincial blindness that thus leads to the full deluge of criticisms and second guessing that is always flowing from Cuba’s enthusiastic population of “eleven-million managers” back home. But one advantage I hold over those who watch the games only on television and thus from afar is the rare privilege of sitting game after game alongside members of the international baseball press and also with the large community of major league scouts (many of them former big league or minor league players); both camps regularly and openly share their far more expert opinions with me about what they see in the way of plusses and minuses from the current Cuban teams performing on the field. It is those insights from other knowledge experts that often sustain and underpin my own carefully formed (and not at all emotionally charged) assessments.
One opinion was nearly universal among big league scouts sent to Japan and it was that Cuba had the most talented roster of any of the four clubs in Fukuoka or any of the four that reached Tokyo. Of the individual players on display in the Tokyo Dome two weeks ago none stirred more interest among pro scouts than Yasmani Tomás, José Fernández, José Dariel Abreu, Bárbaro Arruebarruena, Guillermo Heredia and (although he saw little action) 19-year-old Andy Ibáñez. More than three dozen bird dogs expressed the strong opinion that the Cuban squad should have reached San Francisco and in fact would likely have fared far better in California than either Japan or The Netherlands.
Then why did Cuba lose its final vital match? Was it a subpar fielding performance by third sacker Yulieski Gourriel that held the key to last-minute ninth-inning defeat, was it faulty managerial tactics by chaotic skipper Victor Mesa who stumbled in juggling his bullpen corps, was it one fatal pitch from a tired Norberto González with only four outs remaining before ultimate victory – was it even more likely the clutch hitting of Dutch big leaguers Jonathan Schoop and Andrelton Simmons? Or was it simply that the baseball often bounces in odd ways and (especially in such short pressure-packed tournaments) the best club does not always win out night after night. These are points that can be debated endlessly and I don’t claim to have any expert answers here, or any insights more valid than those of many ill-informed debaters in Havana’s Central Park. Baseball is an unpredictable game and victory and defeat are always settled “en el terreno” (a favorite Cuban expression) and never in the pages of journalistic analysis.
I fully admit that Cuba’s final game loss in the Tokyo Dome was somewhat unexpected and largely disappointing. But I totally reject the idea that one such loss represents a failure of Cuba’s current baseball system, or stands as a signal (according to so many) that Cuban baseball now has to be completely revamped and restructured.
If Cuba’s three WBC performances signal some flaw in the Cuban League, than what do Cuban fans make of the apparent sad state of the national pastime in the United States – three American squads crammed with big league all-stars like Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodríguez, David Wright, R.A. Dickey and so many more – have amassed an overall Classic record far inferior to the one Cuba boasts. The vaunted Americans have played at a mere .500 clip in their three outings, have reached the final round the same number of times as the Cubans, were eliminated at the same level as Team Cuban this time around, and have failed to match Cuba’s one trip to the tournament’s gold medal game. But is this because of a total collapse of American baseball? Do we hear anyone screaming that because of American WBC failures we should now be considering a total revamping in the structure of major league baseball?
Yes, the object of any tournament is to reach the finals and ultimate to walk away as champions. But there is never only one champion and 15 other complete failures. There are many measures of success and many proud performances. Let’s step back for a moment and look at the total record. Of the 18 national teams that have performed in the three editions of the Classic there are five who have consistently performed extremely well and those five are (despite some temporary dips along the way over the years) Japan, Korea, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and, yes, certainly Cuba.
These are the five that have each reached the final championship game on at least one occasion and also the five who have posted overall winning percentages above the .600 mark – a degree of success that usually represents championship standing in the big leagues. Japan is the only club to win the title twice, Korea is the only other team to reach multiple finals, and the Dominicans are the only squad (this year) ever to roll through the tournament field undefeated. Look at the list of three-year records (below) and one finds that Cuba boasts the fourth best winning percentage – trailing only the Dominicans, Koreans, and Japanese and slightly edging out this year’s sub-champions from Puerto Rico. The proud baseball nations of Venezuela (perhaps today’s richest big league talent font) and the United States (boaster of a false claim that the sport is its own exclusive national pastime) are nowhere to be found of this list.
True the Cuban winning percentage of .650 pales beside an overall international mark of better than .900 in international matches between 1962 and 2005 (the year before the first Classic finally opened top international tournaments to major leaguers). But come on folks, this is comparing platens to pickles – Cuba once won nine of every ten matches because it was squaring off with college ball clubs and industrial league all-stars and not with major leaguers. But to win 13 of 20 games against seasoned pros – to defeat Albert Pujols and company in 2006 in the semis, or even to ease past the crack Japanese League all-star squad this year in Fukuoka – this is a bat rack of a far different color.
A notch below the big five from Japan, Korea, Dominicana, Puerto Rico and Cuba we find the threesome of Venezuela, The Netherlands, and Team USA – the only other trio to ever reach the tournament’s final four. Of this group only the Venezuelans boast an overall ledger on the upside of the breakeven mark. Even with their run past Cuba and into San Francisco this time around, the Dutch finished at a mere 4 and 4 ledger during the 2013 Classic; Cuba’s record this year was 4-2. And this leads to another yardstick. How many countries have posted a winning record in all three Classic outings? Only four: Japan (5-3, 7-2, 5-2), Korea (6-1, 6-3, 2-1), Puerto Rico (4-2, 4-2. 5-4) and Cuba (5-3, 4-2, 4-2). Will someone please explain to me how this exclusive fraternity of winners might demonstrate in any fashion that Cuba’s current baseball is incapable of remaining competitive in the World Baseball Classic.
A devoted Cuban fan from Miami posted an observation on my Facebook page last night that captured the sentiments of many – that Cuba needs to start using its exiled big league players (Céspedes, Chapman, Alexei Ramírez, Escobar, Maya, Liván etc.) if it ever hopes to have success in the Classic. I reject this idea totally. I have already commented in an earlier column on the devastatingly negative effect such a situation would have for the top players remaining in Cuba. But there are other reasons for rejecting such a solution. Playing with only its native domestic leaguers, Cuba is already (as shown above) one of the four most successful teams in the brief three-year WBC history.
The earlier Cuban Classic teams that did feature Céspedes, Ramírez, Maya and Chapman – plus current minor leaguers like Leonys Martin and Leslie Anderson – were debatably not as strong as this year’s Cuban squad. Scouts in Tokyo over and again voiced the solid opinion that there were more legitimate big league prospects – especially Tomás, Fernández, Abreu and Ibáñez – on this Cuban club than on either of the two previous island entrants. There are far more reasons, then, to be proud of Cuba’s Classic performances to date than there are any reasons to doubt or dismiss them. The irony here is that it was precisely the demonstrated quality and strength of this year’s domestically produced Cuban League roster that lead to so much disappointment and letdown when the team was ousted before reaching its final goal. Lament the loss, I say, but don’t lament the approach.
Peter Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, past and present. He has reported on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team as senior writer for www.BaseballdeCuba.com during the past six-plus years and is currently writing a book on the history of Cuba’s post-revolution national team.
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