Baseball’s final four, pelota shadows politics

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A review of the first two rounds and some impressions of an international tournament still in its teething stages by CITIUS ALTIUS FORTIUS*

(18 March 2006) – IN THE INAUGURAL edition of baseball’s world championship event, the World Baseball Classic, the semifinal knockout stage begins tonight. Here is a review of the first two rounds and some impressions of an international tournament still in its teething stages.

Pool A featured four Asian teams playing in Tokyo. The Japanese expected to rule the group over Korea. The two teams had already clinched advancement into Round 2 when they played in the group finale and surprisingly, it was the Koreans who came away with the win, 3-2. They featured the three key ingredients to winning baseball – good pitching, timely hitting and some spectacular defence. The Tokyo Dome was in shock at the Korean win but both teams would meet again in Round 2 in California.

Pool B was played in America, with the hosts struggling a bit to proclaim their expected first round dominance. A 2-0 victory over neighbours Mexico began their campaign before their neighbour to the north, Canada stole a surprise victory. The score was 8-6, but it could be said the game was not that close. The Americans faced elimination but a vastly inferior South African team posed no problem, and a Mexican victory over Canada ensured that the USA were through.

Florida played host to Pool D where the ultra-powerful Dominican Republic and Venezuela were favoured over Australia and Italy. The two outsiders (particularly the Athens silver-medalists Aussies) proved game opponents, but could not match the stars from the Americas. Pool C, however, provided all the interest as the Netherlands joined three traditional powerhouse baseball nations – hosts Puerto Rico, tournament dark horse Panama and the most interesting of all, Cuba.

Fidel’s boys have continually put together years-long winning streaks in international competitions, earning twenty-five titles in the IBAF World Cup, twelve Pan-American Games golds and three of the four Olympic titles contested. But they have done so using their nation’s best players while their competitors have rarely been able to line-up their top against them. While every other nation’s greatest perform in the world’s top league (America’s Major League Baseball) the Cuban players, for obvious reasons are unable to play in that league.

Over the last decade, some Cubans have been able to defect and have made impacts in MLB and earned millions of dollars. There were concerns that Cuban players might use this tournament as an opportunity to defect. At first it seemed they would not be given the chance to play at all. The United States government was considering banning the Cuban team from the tournament, citing infringement on their trade embargo. It was a nightmare for MLB, the organizers of the tournament. To be honest, it was a petty and a stumbling intrusion by the Bush administration on sport. In the end, they were left with red faces as the Cuban government pledged all monetary gains from involvement in the tournament to the Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund.

The WBC was clearly the better for Cuba’s participation. Never before has a tournament included the world’s greatest professionals with the Cuban stars. Since the IOC’s open-armed policies toward professionals, only the Sydney 2000 tournament has been played at a time convenient to professional (though not the top) players, and it is important to note that Cuba lost twice, shockingly to the Netherlands and to the minor league pros of the USA in the gold medal game.

Eduardo Paret

Eduardo Paret

Speaking for the team, star shortstop and captain Eduardo Paret said that the players were proud to wear Cuba’s colours in the tournament and would never turn their backs on Castro by defecting. Cuba’s policies were protested by an individual fan who held up a sign that read “Down With Fidel.” Organizers were quick to remove the sign and issue a statement of apology that outlined their desire to keep things on sporting terms. But not before the Cuban team was upset by the sign and threatened a pull-out. As ever, politics (and sport) run on a two-way street. In a later game, a group of fans looked to be wearing t-shirts that spelled out a message and were confronted by stadium stewards. I could not make out their message, but they possibly found a loop-hole in the released statement from organizers.

For me, Cuba represents the greatest experiment (for lack of a better word) in international sport

For me, Cuba represents the greatest experiment (for lack of a better word) in international sport. They are an island unto themselves in sporting matters nearly as much as political ones. Of course, their political isolationism has far-reaching impacts that shadow any sporting ones. But their chief exports, in many eyes, are baseball players and boxers who are in fact not exported but shackled from the millions of dollars that surround them. Still, they always succeed, but on their own terms.

[For their part, Americans have an isolationism of their own which is very much evident in their sporting culture. Many top players never gave the WBC a second thought and many baseball fans are acting the same way. The tournament certainly is receiving a mixed reception but Americans do have a skeptic view to any type of international competition that doesn’t have five rings flying on a flag somewhere. Be it a defence mechanism or not, this surely has to do with the fact that winners of American professional leagues are termed “World Champions” though they have never crossed their borders. This is also the reason for naming the tournament the World Baseball Classic and not the World Championship. How could the Dominican Republic claim themselves “World Champs” when everyone knows the Chicago White Sox hold the title? But I digress…]

Naturally, there is great pride on the island of Cuba for their international successes. Their boxers lead the way in international competitions; throughout the 1990’s Miryea Luis was the greatest female volleyball player in the world leading the world’s best team; their wrestlers and weightlifters continually stamp their mark on the world stage. But it is in baseball, the favourite sport of their leader Castro (his son is the team physician who holds an influential perch next to the manager during games) that Cuba dominates with an asterisk – *They’ve never beaten the best.

Cubans stand alone in the way they play baseball and in their physical appearance on the diamond

Cubans stand alone in the way they play baseball and in their physical appearance on the diamond. Their players seem as anachronistic to the top levels of Major League Baseball as the cars that prowl the streets of Havana. Firstly, the Cubans have been exempt to the bulking of players that was implicitly allowed by MLB through their non-existent doping laws. While MLB features American, Caribbean and Latin stars that have the appearance of heavyweights in weightlifting, Cuban players still maintain mostly lithe physiques that resemble footballers. Such statures have not been common in MLB for nearly fifteen years.

Secondly, no player is too big to be asked to do the little things that can make all the difference in a baseball game. Some (certainly not all) MLB stars would scoff at being asked to sacrifice bunt rather than try to hit the highlight-reel home run. Certain MLB managers have virtually eliminated the tactic from their gameplan, appealing to every player’s star sensibilities be they stars or not. While in Cuba players of the same talent level practice every single aspect of the game with no highlights or millions to cloud his thinking. Fundamentals are the basis and the pride of their game that lets their talent show.

To San Juan, Puerto Rico the Cuban team traveled and began their tournament against an old foe, Panama, a team they have continually toyed with and frustrated throughout the years. A tight, dramatic game ended in familiar fashion with a late Cuban win, this time in extra innings. Then the Cubans vanquished any lingering doubts over their infamous loss in Sydney by dispatching the Netherlands, 11-2. Next came the MLB talent-laden Puerto Rico team and a first true test against a power-nation’s best. The hosts embarrassed Cuba, winning 12-2 and invoking the tournament’s mercy rule that ends a game early when one team holds an over-powering lead. Cuban last lost in such a fashion in 1983.

Anti-Cuba provocation in San Juan fails

Anti-Cuba provocation in San Juan fails

But they had done enough to advance to the second round, also to be played in San Juan. Cuba opened Pool 2 by showing their class against Venezuela, an outside favourite for tournament honours. The top players from MLB were frustrated throughout the night by the Cubans. Perhaps Cuba were playing possum in their game against Puerto Rico – they have been known to play the psychological game in international play. Their next game was against tournament favourites, the Dominican Republic, desperate to win after a loss to Puerto Rico in their Pool 2 opener. Shaky pitching doomed their chances as the Dominicans proved too powerful on the night. A surprisingly easy 6-0 Venezuela win over Puerto Rico setup a pair of knockout games to determine the semifinalists from San Juan.

After the Dominican Republic booked their place in the semis beating Venezuela 2-1 (winning only through a defensive mistake but allowing only one hit in the game) the Cubans again met the hosts, Puerto Rico. It was a wild night. The Cubans took a 4-1 lead midway through the game by way of Puerto Rican gaffes – a hit batsman, a slightly conservative fielding decision then a throwing error producing the runs – tensions mounted. Two controversial umpiring decisions went the way of the hosts and the Cuban manager entered the field, his interpreter in tow, to confront the umpires (an accepted custom in baseball). When his argument ran too long for the American umpires’ taste the manager was ejected, incensing the Cuban team while throwing the Puerto Rican partisans into a euphoric state.

Carlos Delgado and Ricky Ledes watch the Cubans come back

Carlos Delgado and Ricky Ledes watch the Cubans come back

The skies opened to a tropical downpour as Puerto Rico tacked on a couple of runs. But it helped the Cuban team calm themselves and hold off three Puerto Rico rallies that included a limp off the bench by star Puerto Rican offensive terror Carlos Delgado who was injured and previously unfit to play in the WBC. He could do no damage, however.

Cuba held a 4-3 lead with one out remaining, when up to the plate stepped Puerto Rico’s immensely-talented Ivan Rodriguez. One of MLB’s highest-paid players, he is due to make 11 million dollars in base salary this season alone. Rodriguez may be a sporting mercenary in search of the best contract available just as much as he is a proven winner. But in this context, playing for his country and facing a pitcher he probably never knew existed before this month, he struck out. Puerto Rico was eliminated while Cuba punched their ticket to San Diego and a semifinal match-up against the Dominican Republic.

In Pool 1 of the second round, hosts USA began things by taking a controversial victory over Japan, 4-3. A dubious umpiring decision cost Japan a fourth run and ended their inning, keeping them from scoring. The decision itself was not the most offensive part to observers (myself included), but it was the way the decision was made – the umpire reversing his mind after consulting other umpires who could not have possibly made a call on the play. The tournament’s umpires are all Americans, though not the top MLB umpires. Tournament organizers (MLB) are to be held accountable for not inviting an international umpiring force when they could not come to terms with their own umpires. It was not enough that the draw was heavily slanted in favour of the Americans, but it seemed as though the umpires were looking out for the hosts as well.

WBC.2006.KoreanscelebrateKorea, the revelation of the tournament, then continued their winning ways besting Mexico, 2-1, then the Americans, 7-3. They continued to feature excellent pitching and timely hitting and booked their semifinal place with one game to play. When Japan beat Mexico, it set up another game against Japan who was desperate to win. Another tense struggle was played out in Southern California this time. The stadium was filled with boisterous ex-pats and Asian-Americans fully supporting their teams and providing a great atmosphere fully removed from the traditional American tendency for passivity in international events.

The decisive actions happened late in the game, Lee Jong Beom continuing his offensive hot streak with an eighth-inning, two-run double to open the scoring. Japan countered in the ninth, a solo home run by Tsuyoshi Nishioka gave Japan hope. A one-out single put the tying run on base for Japan, but Oh Seung Hwan entered as pitcher for Korea and struck out Japan’s final two batters. Korea advanced to the semifinals undefeated, while Japan were left to wonder what-if the umpires had been more kind in the USA game.

The Americans were thrown a life-line by the Korean victory as a Japan win would have eliminated them outright. Now, a win over Mexico would have had Team USA squeaking into the semifinals and the ageless legend Roger Clemens was to pitch in what might be his last competitive game. Another boisterous crowd of both American and Mexican supporters saw another dubious umpiring decision. An obvious Mexican home run was disallowed by the same umpire that stole a run from Japan earlier in the tournament. The ball bounced back onto the field of play, the umpire ruling it struck the fence. But it was obvious the ball hit the foul pole which would have resulted in a home run and an early lead for Mexico. The batter, Mario Valenzuela, eventually did score in the inning and Mexico were ahead, but might have felt they were playing against at least ten instead of nine.

The Americans evened the score soon after but were quickly behind again, trailing 2-1 just after the midway point. From there, Mexican pitching and American base-running errors conspired to give the hosts only one last chance to advance. In the ninth inning, two one-out walks had the winning run on base for Team USA when David Cortes was called in to pitch to America’s Vernon Wells. Cortes threw only one pitch to seal the victory as Wells hit into a game-ending double play.

Japan advanced to the semifinals and another mouth-watering date with Korea. Japan’s most famous player and current manager, Sadaharu Oh has said the truth will be told in the third game as his nation’s dominance of Asian baseball is hanging by a thread. Any supposed American dominance has gone by the wayside as they learned the same lesson shown in another sport invented in America – basketball: Team USA cannot win unless they send their very best. And Cuba’s international dominance is on the line once again, this time on American soil, beginning with a powerful Caribbean foe sitting on one day’s more rest.

Better yet, they can hand organization over to the Asian, Caribbean and Latin American communities that will hold the World Baseball Classic dear

The inaugural tournament’s rough spots have been laid bare – international umpires are needed no matter their quality, more games must to be played outside of the United States, a format change is needed so that teams can cross-over groups rather than playing each other thrice on the way to the final (no more tilting for the Americans, it backfired anyway) and a possible calendar change to place the tournament closer to or perhaps during the MLB season when players are a bit sharper.

But like the blemishes, the drama has also been there for all to see. The Cuban issue aside, it is an important tournament that has its place on the international scene. National pride is given another, larger stage particularly for Caribbean nations whose greatest talents are baseball players. Further improvements can only help the sport on its way back into the Olympic programme.

It is a great sight for the world of baseball to see the last four teams as they are. Here’s hoping for a Korea-Cuba final and that the broader, corporate (read: American) necessities not turn their backs on the tournament. Better yet, they can hand organization over to the Asian, Caribbean and Latin American communities that will hold the World Baseball Classic dear.

*CITIUS ALTIUS FORTIUS is a sports blog at http://citiusaltiusfortius.blogs.eurosport.com/

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