Jeff Zillgitt | USA Today
“At this very moment, at 4:30 in the morning in Cuba, Fidel Castro is watching the game,” Cuba’s national sports spokesperson, Pedro Cabrera Isidron, said during the fourth inning of Saturday’s Cuba-Canada Olympic baseball game.
Castro is almost always watching Cuba play baseball. The country’s citizens are watching, hoping its national team restores order to international baseball.
For Cuba, the disappointment in Sydney four years ago pangs like a called third strike with two out in the bottom of the ninth and the bases loaded.
It lost the 2000 gold in baseball to — of all teams — the United States.
Cuba won gold in the 1996 and 1992 Games, and had won six consecutive World Cup baseball titles since 1984 prior to that defeat. All was right with Cuban baseball. Castro, known for his passion of the game, savored the success.
Then came the 2000 Olympics.
“Yes, there still is disappointment from Sydney,” Isidron said.
The “failure” triggered change. Cuba revamped the selection process, giving more weight to recent performances and youth instead of reputation and experience. Cuban baseball officials also created a super-league after its regular National League season. The top 100 players are dispersed among four teams, and they play 30 games. There is more evaluation.
The result: 70% of the players on Cuba’s 2004 Olympic team did not play in Sydney, and more than half of its 24-man roster is 26 years old or younger.
On Saturday in front of about 1,500 fans, Cuba defeated Canada 5-2, advancing to the medal round of the Olympic baseball tournament.
The tournament matters little in the United States because the U.S. did not qualify. But 90 miles south of Key West, in Cuba, that’s about all that mattered.
There is immense pressure on the Cuban baseball team. Anything short of gold seems unacceptable.
“Cuban players know they are golden,” Isidron said. “They have pressure in their blood. It begins in the first years of age when they start playing in neighborhoods.”
Pitcher Pedro Luis Lazo said, “There was no pressure because we are used to it. We are used to playing at a high level, and we all cooperate and work well together.”
Cuba is synonymous with baseball, cigars, exotic culture and strained political relations with the United States. Cuban baseball and politics can also be one and the same (i.e., players defecting to the United States to play Major League Baseball).
But nothing captivates Cuba’s soul like beisbol. The aura is not confined to Cuba. Several fiction and non-fiction books have been written about Cuban baseball by American writers.
“For us, baseball is like soccer for the Italians,” said Cuban native Alexander Vidal Garcia, who lives in Luxembourg and traveled to Greece just to watch Cuba play baseball. “This represents a dream to support our own team and country in the national sport in a foreign land.”
That mystique might be close to disappearing. There is speculation U.S.-Cuba relations will ease when the 78-year-old Castro dies, possibly making it easier for Cuban players to play professionally in the United States.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Cuba still takes pride in its baseball, a game played without agents, million-dollar contracts, labor stoppages and luxury boxes, a game more reminiscent of U.S. baseball 50-60 years ago.
“It is more than a sport. Baseball is our culture and part of our tradition and we will keep on going like this,” Isidron said. “It is the baseball that was played 40 years ago ó not influenced by advertising or commercialism.”
For years, Cuba has dominated international competition. Since the IOC added baseball to the Olympics in 1992, Cuba has won two gold medals and a silver. It has won 24 World Cup titles, including eight consecutive from 1984-2003 and 11 of 14 from 1952-1980.
There is one way to rectify what happened at the last Olympics.
Cuba must win.
“It is an important medal ó the only one we cannot afford to lose,” Isidron said. “If we don’t win gold in baseball, it’s like not winning a medal at all.”
Cuban coaches and players concur.
“Just the one gold one, it’s the only one that concerns us,” Cuba manager Higinio Velez said.
“If we don’t win, it will be very bad,” outfielder Frederich Cepeda said.
After winning its first two games, Cuba dropped its next game to Japan, which is, along with Canada, a medal favorite and Cuba’s toughest opponent.
Cuba won its next three games and re-established itself as the team to beat after Japan lost to Australia. Cuba will play Canada in Tuesday’s semifinals.
“The team is playing very well,” Isidron said. “I am pretty sure that there is no team in Athens that can beat this team. Youth is what this team needed.”
Eighteen players have less than 30 international appearances, and eight players entered the Olympics with zero international appearances.
The youngsters have contributed.
Left fielder Frederich Cepeda, 24, is batting .400 with seven runs scored; second baseman Yulieski Gourriel, 20, is hitting .308 and has scored six runs; outfielder Alexei Ramirez, 22, owns a .313 batting average; third baseman, Michel Enriquez, 25, has knocked in six runs; pitcher Luis Borroto, 21, is 2-0 with eight strikeouts in 8 1/3 inning and a 0.00 ERA; pitcher Norberto Gonzalez, 24, is 1-0 with a 0.77 ERA.
“We have a lot of young players, but after each game we get better step by step,” Enriquez said. “I’m happy at how well these guys are playing together.”
The veterans have mixed in well. Catcher Ariel Pestano is batting .519 with 12 RBI, right fielder/DH Osmani Urrutia is batting .360 with four runs and four RBI and DH Eriel Sanchez is hitting .353.
Whenever Cuba plays in another country, there is always the possibility of a defection. It is a prime opportunity for Cuban players to seek fortune in Major League Baseball.
This is a sore spot with Cuban sports officials. According to a story in the Miami Herald, the Cuban team promised to “reject any offer that goes against Cuban principles” in Athens.
Do Cuban players want to play in the majors? Isidron turns that question around.
“This is a question that you should ask the U.S. government,” he said. “If the U.S. lifted the embargo, changed its politics and the countries have normal relations, there could be a Cuban team in Major League Baseball.”
What about individuals?
“I’m sure a lot would like to play in Major League Baseball,” Isidron said. “But they don’t do it out of respect to their country and the system. It is also a refusal of the U.S. government and its system.”
And what about defectors?
“Those we will reject,” Isidron said. “In almost all cases, they have left the team in the middle of important events and all the good work we had previously done needs to be reorganized due to this.”