Only Star Remaining for WBC Finals Is on the Cuban Flag
Peter C. Bjarkman* for Prensa Latina
Japan Won WBC; Cuba Made History (Photo: Peter Bjarkman)

San Diego, California, Mar 21 (Prensa Latina) Major League Baseball´s first World Baseball Classic did not turn out to be quite what either the moguls of American professional baseball or the rest of the world expected it to be.

MLB´s WBC was advertised from the start as the first legitimate global championship tournament in which top stars from the world´s self-anointed best professional league would battle for pride while wearing the uniforms of their native countries. After nearly three weeks of exciting baseball that gripped television audiences throughout Latin America, Asia and North America, the world watched a most surprising grand finale here in San Diego.

Japan (without any of its recognizable big league exports except Ichiro) and Cuba (the only team in the tournament with no pro leaguers in its stable) have together proved to the world that their brand of team-oriented baseball is the style best adapted to winning in short-duration and tension-packed international tournaments.

The Japanese outscore the Cuban 10-6, but even though the players from the Caribbean island nation failed to win the title, they had a great showing at the Classic, in which to no one´s doubt they made history.

Big league superstars filling the showcase lineups of teams representing pre-tournament favorites Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the USA have already rejoined their pro clubs at spring training sites scattered throughout Florida and Arizona.

When all-stars representing baseball´s two other top leagues -the Cuban League and the Japanese Professional League- took the field Monday night for the final nine innings of the WBC, in which there was no Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Pudge Rodriguez, Johann Santana, Bartolo Colon or Carlos Beltrán anywhere on the scene.

With the single exception of Japan´s Ichiro Suzuki, the only star remaining here at San Diego´s Petco Park was the white five-pointer that adorns the Cuban flag.

For MLB executives the final weekend of this showcase tournament has to be the worst possible nightmare. Japan´s Central and Pacific leagues, while a valued source for a few select star imports like Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, and Hideo Nomo-have never been judged on a par with the US majors. And the Cubans have always been discounted by North American baseball forces as highly overrated for all their past international successes.

Cuba has dominated the international baseball scene since its 1959 socialist revolution, which brought a new form of amateur baseball to the island. Cuban teams have captured three of four Olympic crowns, 25 of 28 World Cups, and nine of 12 Intercontinental Cup titles. The only time they have not won a World Cup title since 1976 was in 1982, a year when they did not compete.

But the reaction stateside has always been that Cuba´s reputation was overblown, that their miraculous string of successes was earned in cheap fashion against amateur or collegiate level opponents. The prevailing wisdom was that the Cuban Leaguers could never compete head-to-head against top big leaguers. How very wrong that perception has now been proved. Never again should the strength and resilience of Cuban baseball be so callously doubted.

Of course MLB has not been entirely a loser-despite such an unpredictable turn of events on the field of play. The stated goal of spreading a message that baseball is truly an international sport has been a resounding success. Merchandize has been sold in record numbers. Stadiums have been jam packed. All-important television ratings have exceeded expectations, despite the underwhelming underperformance of a star-studded Team USA.

The atmosphere was truly electric for second round matches in San Juan´s Hiram Bithorn Stadium-where four Latin American powers faced off in the first true "Caribbean Series" matching the Cuban juggernaut against top big leaguers from Venezuela, the Dominican and host Puerto Rico. And most importantly, a huge North American television audience has had its eyes rudely opened to the undeniable fact that top flight baseball is not restricted to the United States and the Dominican Republic.

Mexico and Canada both upended the USA Dream Team. Korea, without a single household name big leaguer, ran the table undefeated until a semifinal loss to rival Japan. And the two international powerhouses left standing on the final night had only a single major leaguer between them. What could possibly have been a better scenario for growing baseball as an international sport? The biggest surprise in an event full of surprises has without doubt been the successes of the Cuban national team. Cuban baseball has long awaited the hour when it would have a main stage to demonstrate that the quality of its national sport was on a true par with that of any league in the world-especially the celebrity-stunted, high-salaried forces of the US major leagues.

There will now be skeptics quick to assert that the WBC was an unfair test because big leaguers were only in the early stages of spring training, with pitchers not yet fine-tuned and batters struggling with timing and lacking mid-season conditioning.

Dominican manager Manny Acta was quick to dismiss this perception. "Everyone knew we were going to play this tournament at the All-Star break. Everyone had the same opportunity to prepare themselves." It must be remembered that if the Cubans were coming into this tournament in the middle of their National Series, they were also at a serve disadvantage because of pitch-count limits established to load the dice in favor of the big leaguers.

Cuba´s victories in the WBC have not been quite as surprising to those of us who have closely watched the Cuban National Series on island soil over the years, or followed the triumphs of the Cuban team for two decades in distant outposts such as Barcelona, Sydney, Atlanta, Athens, Rotterdam and Taipei.

The Cubans have mastered the art of playing in short tournaments with a single-elimination championship round format. The Cuban brain trust, including manager Higinio Velez, commissioner Carlos Rodríguez and technical director Benito Camacho, did a remarkable job in selecting the best possible roster from numerous top National Series stars and preparing their ball club physically and psychologically for the stiffest challenge in their nation´s century-plus sports history.

The results were the biggest string of victories in the proud history of Cuban baseball-before or after the 1959 revolution. Win or lose against Japan on Monday, Cuba has already enjoyed here on US soil the true apex of its gold-studded 140-year-long baseball saga.

The North American press-partly from lack of information and partly from its ongoing fascination and even obsession with the storyline of possible defections of star Cuban players-once again wrote endlessly before the first pitch of the WBC that either Cuba would not send its top stars to compete in San Juan and San Diego, or that showcase players might abandon their homeland in droves.

Such stories were, as always, the result of wishful thinking and unfortunate disinformation. They failed to take into account the seriousness with which Cuba´s baseball brain trust would prepare for this tournament. They relied on speculations that Cuba´s baseball forces were now weakened by retirements and defections.

What most of American and international media failed to recognize on the eve of the WBC was that new stars had already emerged at Athens (2004 Olympics) and last fall in Rotterdam´s World Cup. Pedro Luis Lazo is every bit as devastating on the mound as José Contreras. Yadel Martí and Vicyohandri Odelín may already be, for their ages, superior to any of the handful of Cuban hurlers who have abandoned the island. Ariel Pestano is a big-league quality catcher and switch-hitting Frederich Cepeda a sure-fire big league outfielder.

In Osmani Urrutia and Michel Enríquez the current squad boasts two of the top five hitters (career batting average) in Cuban League history. And at 22, Yulieski Gourriel is already drawing comparisons with the legendary Omar Linares, comparisons that have now been rubber-stamped by two weeks of WBC action. American media has continued to ignore the fact that despite the departures of El Duque and Contreras, the large majority of the island´s top stars had remained safely planted at home, awaiting the opportunity to test themselves against big leaguers while wearing the jersey of their homeland and not the uniforms of commercial big league ball clubs.

This was indeed the strongest Cuban lineup in recent memory and arguably the best ever. If there was a flaw it might have been pitching depth, yet that flaw proved to be minimal at best since Cuba won in the end on the strength of clutch pitching.

The offensive lineup Cuba brought to San Juan was filled with productive batsmen named Garlobo, Cepeda, Gourriel and Urrutia equal to any sluggers of the past. And in the end the Cubans won big games over their three Caribbean rivals on the strength of their underestimated but always clutch hurling. Contreras might have been gone. But Lazo was still there and proved himself the one truly dominant closer on the WBC scene. With young arms like Martí, Odelín and Yunieski Maya, the Cuban talent well is anything but dry.

The first WBC was a resounding success by every measure. It was also-in a way MLB officials had not anticipated a turning point for international baseball.

When the dust cleared the first WBC had proven at least three things. One was that Cuban baseball is for real. The Cubans have not won so relentlessly because they only face collegians or pros of lower classification. Cuban talent has proved capable of rising to the level of whatever challenge it faces.

A second eye-opener in this tournament has to be the quality of pitching now found around the world. Dominican manager Acta stressed that perception after his teams semifinal loss to Cuba. A final lesson of this tournament has been that Team USA can not expect to win on the world stage simply by throwing together a team of super celebrities at the eleventh hour. The American big leaguers need to learn about playing with the same intensified patriotic passion found in the camps of the Dominicans, Japanese, Koreans and Cubans.

The first WBC will leave an indelible impression on the baseball world until the next round is playing sometime in 2009. As others have observed on this final tournament weekend, a legitimate question has now been raised about MLB´s centerpiece position in the baseball universe: perhaps the big leagues no longer possess the highest quality baseball in the world, only the most expensive.

Cuban skipper Higinio Velez -who managed his pitchers throughout the tournament with the consummate skills of big league bench boss- uttered the most memorable line of the weekend here in San Diego when he pointed out that his Cubans were a team of "hombres not nombres" ("men not names"). Velez was quick to clarify that he was claiming that his team had great and dedicated ballplayers even if they were "unknowns" on the world professional stage.

One of those "unknowns" was slugging outfielder Frederich Cepeda -the only player in to hit safely in all seven WBC games going into the finals- captured the theme of Cuba´s stunning successes when he reminded the American press that "you can not judge baseball teams by the prices the athletes are paid, but only by the heart with which they play." Cepeda continued that "our team has always fought with unity and control, as a team of unity." That unity has now sent shockwaves throughout the baseball universe.

* Peter C. Bjarkman is author of the prize-winning DIAMONDS AROUND THE GLOBE: THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF INTERNATIONAL BASEBALL and has published extensively on Cuban League baseball for more than a decade.