Cubans lined the streets by the thousands Tuesday to welcome their national baseball team home, waving flags, roaring cheers and clutching flowers. Despite Cuba’s loss to Japan in the final, even Fidel Castro was in a jovial mood.
“There was almost an electrical crisis in this country with all the television sets turned on,’’ the 79-year-old leader joked in his address to the several thousand fans assembled for the homecoming.
The day after Japan beat Cuba 10-6 to win the inaugural World Baseball Classic, players’ wives, children and other relatives greeted them with hugs and kisses on the tarmac as their flight arrived Tuesday from San Diego.
“We’ll be back,’’ promised Yadel Marti, who was honored as the tournament’s best pitcher, despite playing for a team with no major league players.
Looking somewhat sad, teammate Frederich Cepeda said, “those of us in baseball don’t like to lose. Victory was so close, but we didn’t achieve it.’‘
The players then embarked on a ride through Havana’s streets in a convoy of olive green military Jeeps. With wailing police sirens, thousands of school children, workers and other baseball fans cheered as they streamed by.
At the homecoming celebration, Castro personally greeted each player, giving each a commemorative wooden bat manufactured in their team’s honor. The players, in turn, returned to Castro the huge Cuban flag he entrusted to them before their departure, as well as two baseballs signed by all team members.
Castro said he had personally watched every single game they played, and “enjoyed, along with millions of citizens, of your feats over there.’‘
The communist leader celebrated their participation in the Classic as “a victory against the unfair exclusion’’ of the team. It initially appeared that tightened U.S. restrictions would prevent Cuba from playing.
It took an appeal by Major League Baseball and a promise by Cuba that any winnings would go to Hurricane Katrina relief to change the U.S. government’s mind.
But even bigger than winning the right to participate was that there were no defections as some had predicted early on, said Angel Iglesias, vice president of Cuba’s National Institute of Sports.
“There is no doubt that the most important victory was the return to the homeland of every member of the delegation,’’ Iglesias said.
This Caribbean island was consumed by the World Classic in recent days. Hundreds of fans gathered Monday night at Havana’s Parque Central to watch the final game in San Diego on a giant television screen.
Associated Press Writer Anne-Marie Garcia contributed to this report.