SAN DIEGO (Monday, 20 March 2006) – WHAT WE ARE WITNESSING is nothing short of a conquest if not an outright theft of a national pastime. They have turned major-league millionaires into paupers on the baseball field, and tonight, in a city that bills itself as “America’s finest,” despite a fiscal crisis that has left it broke, Cuba can record a win for the ages.
In the shadows of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and in a state that was the magnet for America’s westward expansion, Cuba will play Japan in an improbable final game of the inaugural World Baseball Classic.
The final, set up when Cuba beat the Dominican Republic 3-1 and Japan shut out bitter rival South Korea 6-0 at Petco Park on Saturday in a day of baseball that drew a total of 83,907 fans, validates the legitimacy of the WBC.
It has also answered a riddle about how many members of the Major League Baseball Players Association it takes to hold a WBC final? The answer, in 2006 at least: two – Japan’s Ichiro Suzuki and Akinori Otsuka.
It is permissible to refer to the Chicago White Sox as the World Series champions, but it is fraudulent to call them the world champions.
The WBC has changed the way America thinks about baseball, and tonight would be the coup de grâce. Forget the rubbish about how the major-leaguers who made up the rosters of the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the United States were at a disadvantage because they’re still in spring training and the Cubans are almost at the end of their season. That doesn’t wash any more.
“Every major-leaguer who took part in this event knew about it before the all-star break, so there was plenty of time for everyone to prepare,” said Manny Acta, the New York Mets’ third-base coach and manager of the Dominican team, which included Albert Pujols, David Ortiz and Miguel Tejada. “Our players had already played two rounds coming into this game. We’d seen enough pitches. We’d had enough at bats. So, I’d rather give credit than make excuses.”
Stringbean 21-year-old Cuban starter Yadel Marti and reliever Lazo, a workhorse with the body of David Wells and a face like Dave Stewart’s, tied up the powerful Dominican lineup and held the 3-5 hitters in Acta’s order – Pujols, Ortiz and Adrian Beltre – to a single.
“It’s not easy to pitch to a lineup of myself, Ortiz and Tejada,” Pujols said. “We’re cleanup hitters on any other team. I wish the Cubans luck. I really hope they win it all.”
The Cuba-Dominican game attracted a paid crowd of 41,286, and the atmosphere was more Latin-American street carnival than political rally. A day that started with the Cuban anthem played on U.S. soil and sending chills down your spine continued with clumps of Cuban fans sprinkled throughout the stadium waving 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.
(It was interesting to note that Tommy Lasorda, the free-loading former Los Angeles Dodgers manager and WBC “goodwill ambassador,” told a reporter for Spanish-language ESPN Deportes that, “In my current position, I cannot pick my favourite team, but I can say I don’t want Cuba to win, definitely,” which is another reason to root, root, root for the Cubans.)
What this event has done is re-introduced Cuban baseball to the sports mainstream, and that is all good. Yesterday, both Cuban team officials and Major League Baseball spokesmen went out of their way to quickly quell a rumour that there had been a defection by a Cuban player.
“Some of our players have gone – but not all of them were stars,” Cuban manager Higinio Velez said, referring to players who have defected in recent years.
“In Cuba, we have a large number of players. It is a national sport, and if we go back in history – before the revolution – you will see that it was the country in Latin America that had the largest number of players playing in the major leagues. The quality and quantity of the baseball players in Cuba is something that you have to take a look at. There’s a famous phrase that a Cuban reporter uses. It’s ‘You can draw your own conclusion.’ “
And Pujols clearly has. As he passed Ariel Pestano, the brilliant Cuban catcher who is the team’s on-field heart, brain and psychologist, Pujols urged him to win the tournament “for the Caribbean.” Pestano smiled. Later, he would tell reporters that that is precisely what the Cubans would try to do.
“We all deserve it,” Pestano said, and he suggested there’s plenty of room on the bandwagon, regardless of race or nationality.
Good thing, too. Because we all deserve a little more Cuban baseball. More Cuba. Less Lasorda.