Globe and Mail reporter JEFF BLAIR quotes a Cuban reporter: “All I can say is, there’s a famous phrase that a Cuban reporter uses. It’s ‘You can draw your own conclusion.’”
SAN DIEGO (18 March 2006) — QUESTION: How many Major Leaguers does it take to hold a World Baseball Classic final, anyhow?
Answer: Not as many as everyone thought.
Cuba’s national baseball team took its act to the belly of the beast Saturday and sidelined an all-star squad representing the Dominican Republic 3-1 to advance to Monday’s final game, against the winner of a game between South Korea and Japan that was played later Saturday. The Cubans, an amateur powerhouse whose players earn about the equivalent of $20 (U.S.) per month in the Cuban league, knocked off another team laden with Major Leaguers, Puerto Rico, to advance to the semi-final round.
Pedro Lazo, a workhorse pitcher in Cuba with the face of Dave Stewart and the body of David Wells, tied up a Dominican lineup that included Miguel Tejada, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre. The Cubans out-hit the Dominicans 12-8 and starting pitcher Yadel Marti and Lazo held the 3-5 hitters in the Dominican lineup – Pujols, Ortiz and Adrian Beltre – to one single.
“It’s not easy to pitch to a lineup of myself, Ortiz and Tejada,” Pujols said later. “We’re all cleanup hitters on any other team. I wish the Cubans luck. I really hope they win it all.”
This must be one of the sweetest moments in the history of Cuban sport, considering the teams participation in the event was called into question because of the U.S.’s long-standing economic embargo against the island and its leader, Fidel Castro. It was only when the Cubans said they’d donate whatever financial benefits they get from the event to Hurricane Katrina relief that the U.S., government gave it’s clearance for the event. Considering the ham-handed response of the Bush Administration to the hurricane, it is arguably the best thing the government has done for the victims of the hurricane.
“I’d like to greet all of those who had something to do with bringing Cuba into this classic,” said Ariel Pestano, the Cuban catcher and field general who keeps his edgy, quirky teammates in check for the most part.
“We’d also like to thank the people of Puerto Rico for their support during the second round we played in San Juan, and to tell all the people of the Americas that we are here playing, first of all, as Cubans, but we’re also representing Latin America here, and we’ll do everything possible and also the impossible, so that we can bring this success to Latin America, that we will win on behalf of Latin America. We all deserve it.”
Last weekend in Anaheim, a high-ranking major league official said that he believed the Cubans would be “exposed” as the tournament went on. Wrong. With the U.S. already sidelined, the Major League flavour to the final will be limited.
How to describe Cuba’s national team?
Here are some snippets from a day in which they were cheered on by a sizable portion of the 41,268 at PETCO Park on a chilly afternoon – a day in which the Cuban national anthem was played on U.S. soil, and clumps of Cuban fans sprinkled throughout the stadium waved flags and banners with words such as ‘Cuba Libre’ and images of Che Guevara without incident, a day that ended with Cuban players taking off their caps and acknowledging warm applause from all side of the ballpark as chants of ‘Coo-ba! Coo-ba! Coo-ba!’ rained down:
• the Cuban players aren’t much interested in being cool. They’d rather have fun. The players stand throughout the game, leaning up against the padded rail in front of their dugout or sitting haphazardly on the top of the rail, clapping rhythmically, nibbling sunflower seeds and taking cups of water and repeatedly showering the area in front of their dugout for good luck;
• the Cuban relievers warm up wearing windbreakers and some of them start throwing, literally, a few pitches into the game. They stand and join in the clapping of their teammates. Lazo sprinted into the game and arrived on the mound before his manager had come out to take Marti out of the game. He and Marti – the latter of whom is working on a 12 2/3-inning scoreless streak – hugged;
• the Cubans will huddle as a team every now and then in the tunnel below their dugout. They will autograph baseballs for fans behind the dugout while the game is going on. There is constant chatter, and it’s nothing to see four or five Cubans talking in the on-deck circle gesturing excitedly during an opponent’s pitching change. Elier Sanchez appeared as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning, singled, was replaced by a pinch-runner – and hustled straight to the Cuban bullpen, where he was handed a mask and catcher’s glove. Designated hitter Yoandry Garlobo had three hits, and Alexei Ramirez and Frederich Cepeda each drove in runs in a three-run seventh inning highlighted by a Beltre throwing error and a passed ball. Cepeda has hit safely in all seven games. Dominican starter Bartolo Colon gave up six hits in six innings and struck out four before being removed because of a blister.
The Cubans interrupted their season to compete in the inaugural WBC – stopping their league just before the playoffs. Major league players and pitchers are in the middle of spring training. Yet to their credit, both Pujols and Dominican manager Manny Acta, the third base coach of the New York Mets, went out of their way to say it was a non-factor.
“I’d rather give credit than make excuses,” said Acta, who made his managerial chops in this series by benching the wayward Alfonso Soriano – who struck out for the last out of the game. “Every major leaguer who took part in this event knew about it before the All-Star break. There was plenty of time for everyone to prepare. Our players had already played two rounds coming into this game.
We’d seen enough pitches. We’d had enough at bats.”
All I can tell you is that their pitching – the Cuban pitching – is legit. Position players have had a hard time coming from Cuba and making an impact in North America, but think about the pitchers who have come here. The Livan Hernandez’s. Orlando Hernandez. (Jose) Contreras … their pitchers have been able to come over here and immediately make contributions in the majors.
“The Cubans have been accused of shielding their players from the media during this event, and getting access to them does require a certain amount of persistence and cajoling. Yesterday, there was a tiff during post-game interviews in an informal interview area when the person translating for Cepeda, the Cuban left fielder, attempted to downplay comments from the player which spoke about how the team played “revolutionary baseball,” only to be called on it by a Hispanic reporter from the U.S. But the Cubans have, for the most part, stayed away from revolutionary rhetoric in the three days they’ve been in San Diego, although manager Higinio Velez could not contain a smile when he was asked how the Cubans were able to field successful teams even with past defections by some high-profile players.
You can draw your own conclusion
“Some of our players have gone – but not all of them were stars,” Velez said. “In Cuba, we have a large number of players. It is a national sport, and if we go back in history – if we go back before the revolution – you will see that a lot of the Cuba players were playing in the major leagues. It was the country in Latin America that had the largest number of players playing in the Major Leagues.
“All I can say is, look at the quality of our players. We have a large number of players, so the quality and quantity of the baseball players in Cuba is something that you have to take a look at. Then,” Velez paused.
“All I can say is, there’s a famous phrase that a Cuban reporter uses. It’s ‘You can draw your own conclusion.’”