Archive for the 'Cuba' Category

Cuba and the WBC: Cuba’s chances in the tournament

The news keeps getting worse for those in charge of the World Baseball Classic.

Major League umpires won’t be officiating the WBC games. Manny Ramirez has elected to stay with the Red Sox. Pedro Martinez’s injured toe will keep him from pitching in the first round. A Vernon Wells injury will keep him out of the Classic. Roberto Kelly, the manager of the Panama team, quit in frustration over a lack of support for his team.

So as the World Baseball Classic organizers struggle to fill holes and mend gaps just a week before play starts in Asia, it’s getting harder and harder to determine just who will win this tournament. While the Dominican Republic and the United States are the gamblers’ favorites, the Cuban National team is currently the defending World Champions. They took home a gold medal during the 2004 Olympics and won the Baseball World Cup in 2003.

“They are the dominant international team in baseball right now,” Kevin Baxter, international baseball writer for the Miami Herald, said, during last Friday’s talk on Cuba and the World Baseball Classic sponsored by the Inter-American Dialogue.

For all of the talk and hype, however, no one really knows how the Cuban team will fare. For starters, their previous victories on the international stage have all come against teams consisting of non-Major League players. As the rules of the International Baseball Federation dictate, the international competitions have always omitted Major Leaguers.

The World Baseball Classic, however, will pit Cubans against some of the best players in the world. Plenty of tournament teams are loaded with Major League All Stars. While the Cubans defeated the Orioles in an exhibition game back in 1999, those Orioles were 84-78 and finished a disappointing fourth place in front of just the Devil Rays in the American League East. All Stars they were not.

During the dialogue, I asked if any current Major Leaguers could potentially play for Cuba. I figured Jose Contreras, after his postseason success, or El Duque would be assets to the Cuban team. Knowing about their defections, I did not expect them to be eligible to play.

For the most part, these players would not play for Cuba. Castro considers them traitors to the country. However, I found it interesting that Jose Contreras has a clause in his contract allowing him to play for Cuba if the Cuban Baseball Federation, the governing body of Cuban baseball, invites him to play. Contreras is also eligible to pitch for the team that could replace Cuba in the tournament. Because Contreras has to be a citizen of a foreign country to declare free agency in the Majors, he defected to Nicaragua. He could join the Nicaraguan team as a pitcher. However, that possibility is unlikely.

So then could a team of Cuban professionals with no Major Leaguers among them upset the tournament bigwigs? Baxter, in an informal conversation with me after the dialogue, expressed his opinion that the Cuban team could very well be the dark horse candidates of the tournament. The 30 players ultimately selected for the team will be the top athletes in a competitive sport on a very competitive island, and most, if not all of them, would fit excel playing for a Major League club.

Furthermore, the Cubans would be able to exploit the tournament rules to their advantage. During previous international exhibitions, the Cubans have generally ridden a few pitchers. Under the tournament rules, pitchers will be faced with strict pitch counts, and Cuba will have to go to the bullpen. While atypical for Cuban baseball, this rule change could very well help the team.

Cuban pitchers are notorious for their deception. Look at Orlando Hernandez or Jose Contreras. By mixing up arm angles, delivery speeds, and pitch selection, El Duque and Contreras have excelled as starters at various points in their professional careers.

Baxter feels this pitching edge gives the Cubans something of an advantage; by throwing their top-notch pitchers at American players, the Cubans could deceive the other teams enough to eke out a tournament win. As Baxter put it, the Major League players have seen Johan Santana, Roger Clemens, and Pedro Martinez plenty of times, but they have never faced these Cuban pitchers. It could just be enough for Cuba to win the tournament.

Cuba and the WBC: A question of participation

For the past few months, the American media has wondered whether or not the Cuban team would be allowed into the tournament. While the Treasury Department initially said no to the inclusion of Cuba in an American-sponsored money-making tournament, MLB used its considerable political connections to overturn this decision.

Yet, many baseball analysts do not think Cuba will be able to play. The team, still without an official roster and at the mercy of State Department officials, could face some Visa issues for some key players and personnel.

But according to Kevin Baxter, international baseball writer for the Miami Herald and a leading American expert on Cuban baseball, Cubans should be asking a different question. Whether or not they can play does not matter; rather, should the Cubans, the 2004 Olympic Gold Medal winners, play at the World Baseball Classic? Baxter doesn’t think so.

“They are the dominant international team in baseball right now,” Baxter said Friday at the Inter-American Dialogue sponsored talk on Cuba and the World Baseball Classic. “At this point in Cuban baseball history, I don’t see any upside to their participating.”

These two seemingly contradictory statements illustrate the quandary Cuban baseball officials find themselves in just a few days before the start of the tournament. The Cubans have long had an edge in amateur play. Except for a stunning defeat in 2000, the Cuban National Team has never lost to Team USA. They routinely capture gold medals and World Cup championships.

All of this success leads Cubans to hold their baseball players in high regard. They know that their players can compete with and defeat the best of the best. But in previous competitions, the Cuban teams have been squaring off against other amateur teams. In other words, the Cuban players have never faced teams consisting of All Star, Major League caliber talent.

On the international stage during the World Baseball Classic, the Cubans would for the first time be facing the best players in the game. Their first-round opponents include Puerto Rico with All Stars at every starting position and a decent pitching rotation. If they were to advance, the Cubans would be facing the powerhouse Dominican team or the arms-rich Venezuelan team. “There is a chance,” Baxter said, “Cuba could finish the tournament with a losing record.”

For Cuban officials, this outcome is undesirable to say the least. If Cuba were to return home from the tournament with a losing record – in fact, if Cuba were to return home from the tournament without a championship trophy – the WBC would be viewed as a bust and a huge propaganda defeat. For years, the Cuban government has instilled a deep pride in its baseball teams. Olympic victories and Pan-American tournament championships have given rise to a very popular league. Even those Cubans who defect and reach the Major Leagues are viewed as heroes by many of the people on the island.

If Cuba were to lose badly in the tournament, the blow to the reputation of the team would be devastating. Cubans would have to face the reality that their team isn’t as good as they have long believed, and for a baseball-obsessed nation, this would be a tough reality to accept.

Of course, a tournament victory would bring immense pride to the nation. However, the Cubans are currently defending Olympic champions, and it would be easy for the nation’s leaders to invalidated the tournament in the eyes of other Cubans by noting Cuba’s absence, whether it is U.S. government-enforced or a last-minute pull-out.

Outside of the propagandist nature of the tournament, the Cubans, as Baxter explained, also must weigh the risk of defections. During the Pan-American Games in 1999, the Cubans lost numerous young athletes to defection. Included in this group is current Dodgers pitcher Danys Baez.

These defections come at a price to the popularity and success of the Cuban National Series, according to author and Cuban baseball expert Tim Wendel. “The Cuban team would be hurt by these defections,” Wendel said.

Throughout the 1990s, Cuban baseball underwent something of a transformation. High-profile players such as Orlando Hernandez and Rey Ordonez among others defected. At the same time, the Cuban officials began renting out some of their best players to other international teams. With the loss of talent, attendance was hit hard, Baxter explained. Fans were upset that the cream of their crop was either fleeing to the Major Leagues or heading overseas.

Eventually, while the defections have continued at a trickle, the practice of renting out players has stopped, and the popularity of Cuban baseball is again on the rise. The young players, according to Wendel and Baxter, have really stepped up the level of play. So with this scenario in mind, the Cubans, according to Baxter, have two options.

The first option would be to play in the tournament. This represents a huge risk for the Cubans. As they have only been granted a retinue of around 40 people, they need to carry 30 players and some coaches. This leaves only a few spaces for security forces guarding against defections, and roster selection becomes vital. “I think that will play a major role in the selection of the team,” Baxter said.

The Cubans could opt to go with a younger and more athletic team. But, as Baxter noted, players ages 16 to 21 are “prime targets for defections” with scouts and agents hovering around them.

“A safer team would be an older team,” Baxter said. However, that older team wouldn’t be as good or as competitive as the younger team, and the Cubans would be facing that distinct possibility of a tournament loss.

The second option would be for Cuba to pull out at the last minute. While this move could harm the Cuban relationship with the U.S. Treasury Department, it may not that unpopular on the island. Currently, the Cuban press has paid little attention to the WBC, and Fidel Castro has always used the caveat “if we’re allowed to compete” when referring to the tournament. He has spun it as anti-American propaganda in a way. Were Cuba to pull out, they could continue to lay claim to their international titles, and the popular National Series would resume. Thus, Cubans would be happy.

While this move may at first glance leave the WBC organizers in a bind, Baxter believed this would not be as devastating or as unexpected as it seems. First, he noted that the Cuban National Series participants have been called back to practice starting today. While the Series was suspended until the end of the tournament, it seems a little strange that the players would be practicing already. While no date has been set for the National Series to resume, it is clear that the Cuban officials want the players ready at a moment’s notice.

Furthermore, Major League Baseball has a replacement team lined up. Nicaragua, the 17th team so to speak, has been preparing for the tournament as though they would be playing. They are currently selecting a team and practicing for the WBC. If Cuba were to drop out at the last minute, Nicaragua could easily slide in to take over the empty spot.

Over the next two weeks, this debate will play itself out. While Baxter maintains that the Cubans will not and should not participate in the tournament, he is prepared to be wrong. Like many baseball fans the world over, Baxter would love to see the Cuban team on an international stage facing Major League competition.

Now, if the Cubans are to compete, would they be able to hold their own against the professional stars? Should they be expected to defend their recent gold medals? Tomorrow, I’ll delve into the team’s chances in the tournament.

Cuba and the WBC: The international appeal of baseball

For those of you arriving here from Baseball Musings, this post is part two in a week-long series examining Cuba and the World Baseball Classic. Part One introduced the topic of Cuban Baseball. Part Three examines whether or not Cuba should participate in the World Baseball Classic I hope you will check those pieces out as well.

Tim Wendel, co-founder of Baseball Weekly and Cuban baseball expert, traveled to Cuba for the 1992 Cuban National Series. The National Series is Cuba’s version of a regular season. Featuring 16 teams from all regions – including the rural ones – of Cuba, the National Series draws fans out in droves.

In fact, the popularity of what Americans would consider regular season games is unrivaled anywhere throughout the baseball world. According to Wendel, fans start filling up the 55,000-seat stadium at noon for games that do not start until 7:30 p.m.

Unlike American stadiums, the Cuban estadios do not sell beer during the hours of pre-game ceremonies. In fact, there are no pre-game ceremonies, no video montages of last night’s highlight, no Este Semana en Beisbol to occupy the time. Rather, the fans sit and sit and sit for nearly seven hours talking about – what else? – baseball.

“I thought I knew everything about baseball until I went to Cuba,” Wendel said last Friday during the Inter-American Dialogue sponsored talk Cuba and the World Baseball Classic.

These fans, from the kids in the rural areas to the old men in the parks in Havana, know everything about baseball. And not just Cuban baseball; they know everything about Major League Baseball. They can real off who won what during which season; they can recite rosters and in many cases statistics for any Major League player star or scrub.

But for all of this knowledge, they do not know, according to Wendel, the physical descriptions of Major League Baseball players. Due to the embargo between Cuba and the United States, the MLB games are not broadcast over the air to Cuba.

During his 1992 trip, Wendel was sitting in the lower deck of the stadium in Havana when an older man next to him noted that he was American. This old Cuban baseball fan starting asking Wendel about the 1991 World Series Champion Minnesota Twins. When Wendel started telling him the names of the players, the man cut him off. He knew all of their season statistics and individual accomplishments. “I need to know what they look like,” the Cuban said to Wendel.

In his best Spanish, Wendel spent some time describing the Twins. He talked about their stocky first baseman Kent Hrbek and the pesky rookie Chuck Knoblauch. He described Jack Morris’ poise on the mound and struggled with the Spanish word for bowling ball when Kirby Puckett’s turn arose.

When Wendel was finished with the descriptions, the old man was choked up. “He had tears in his eyes,” Wendel said, “and said, ‘Thank you. Now I know.'”

As Kevin Baxter, international baseball writer for the Miami Herlad and frequent visitor to Cuban baseball games, noted after hearing Wendel’s story, the fans in Cuba have a passion for baseball that arguably runs deeper than the American love of the game. “There are people in St. Paul who don’t want to know about the 1991 Twins,” Baxter said.

Americans tend to view baseball as their own sport. “Here baseball is Mom’s Apple Pie,” Wendel said. “It’s the Fourth of July.” Baseball, in other words, is America.

What Americans do not realize is the popularity of the sport outside of its borders in nearby Caribbean nations and throughout the Pacific Rim. Baseball was introduced to the Cuban island at nearly the same time as it was growing in popularity among Americans. In fact, as Wendel noted, baseball quickly became the sport of the revolution for Cubans fighting for independence.

As the rumor goes, the Spanish colonial rulers at one point had to ban the game because not enough people were going to the bullfights. Since Cubans at bullfights had to pay their respects to Spanish military leaders, baseball games were seen as acts of rebellion. Needless to say, the ban had little effect on the popularity of the sport.

Meanwhile, nearly one hundred and forty years after the Spanish banned the sport, Cubans still see baseball in something of a rebellious light. At the ports of Havana, baseball fans struggle to concoct what Wendel called a baseball tower of Babel. Makeshift radio receivers stretch high in the air in an effort to capture AM radio transmissions of Major League Baseball games. While Cuban police often knockdown these receivers on orders from Fidel Castro, they are rebuilt as quickly as they are destroyed.

Baseball in all its popularity in Cuba could become a common ground for Americans and Cubans. Baseball analysts in America would find their knowledge of the sport eclipsed by fans in Cuba. Baseball players will meet their equals and sometimes their betters on the field of the play. And baseball fans could meet their counterparts who are even more vocal in their patriotic support for their teams.

Yet, the popularity of baseball in Cuba is different than the popularity in America. Cuban baseball players are not rewarded with free agency and lucrative contracts. The top players may earn cars from the government, but these cars – 1959 Chevys – do not set them that far apart from their neighbors. The game in Cuba is still very much a community game. The players live in the same houses as their long-time neighbors. They are very much community participants, and everyone knows them. Baseball in Cuba is still a game, and unlike baseball in the States at times, the Cuban version of baseball very much belongs to the people.

With this popularity of baseball in Cuba comes a variety of concerns about which Americans would never think twice. The league, closely overseen by El Presidente himself, suffers after high-profile defections. Furthermore, the Cuban team is currently the world’s premiere amateur team and Gold Medal defenders at the Olympics. Could the team’s reputation and subsequent popularity on the island take a hit in a tournament that pairs the team up against Major Leaguers instead of college players? This question will weigh heavily on the minds of Cuban baseball officials, WBC officials, and baseball fans over the next few weeks.

Cuba and the World Baseball Classic: An Introduction

Ninety miles south of Key West, Florida, lies Havana, the capital of the island of Cuba. But for its geographic proximity, most Americans know little of the culture on the island outside of the unique role Cuba and its ruler Fidel Castro played during the history of the Cold War.

While Cuba is open to the rest of the world, its tumultuous relationship with the United States has led to an aura of mystique surrounding the island nation. We hear of Cuba in the context of the United States military base at Guantanamo Bay. We hear of Cuba when high-profile Cubans defect to America. Sports stars escape the grip of Fidel Castro to bring baseball teams to the World Series. We hear of Cuba when Fidel Castro makes another anti-American statement or when embargos are enacted.

Meanwhile, the island itself is a fascinating study in culture. Just a short plane ride from Florida, but inaccessible to many in the United States, the nation of Cuba with its population of 11 million has no official way of getting information from the United States. The only U.S.-based radio stations broadcast to Cuba are Radio Free Cuba and Voice of America. But despite all of this, baseball is incredibly popular in Cuba. In fact, it may even be more popular in Cuba than it is in the United States of America.

I attended an eye-opening session on Cuban baseball this past Friday. Sponsored by Florida International University and the Inter-American Dialogue, Cuba and the World Baseball Classic featured two leading authorities on Cuban baseball and a Cuban-American policy expert discussing Cuban baseball, the upcoming World Baseball Classic, and the conflict between the Treasury Department and Major League Baseball over Cuba’s participation in the tournament.

This week, I want to present my readers with my analysis of the discussion. Kevin Baxter, Miami Herald international baseball writer, and Tim Wendel, Baseball Weekly co-founder and author of The New Face of Baseball: The One-Hundred-Year Rise and Triumph of Latinos in America’s Favorite Sport, spoke extensively about Cuban baseball. From tales of super-obsessed fans to the passion in the stands during the Cuban National Series to warning signs that Fidel Castro may pull his team out of the WBC at the last minute, the two brought up so much information on a nation so close to the United States.

Meanwhile, Steve Johnson, the Cuban expert from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank based in Washington, D.C., provided an overview of the political situation between Cuba and the United States. While Johnson had the least to say about baseball of the three on the panel, his contributions contextualized the discussion. He explained how the rise of Communism so close to the United States during the height of the Cold War ultimately led to the current icy relationship between Cuba and the United States. In fact, his ten-minute introduction set the stage for an explanation of the Treasury decision to deny Cuba initial entrance into the tournament.

In the middle of December, the United States Department of Treasury announced that Cuba could not send a delegation of players to the World Baseball Classic. Because of a long-standing economic embargo against Cuba, the Treasury Department declined to issue a permit for the Cuban team. This embargo stems from a limitation on the commercial transactions between Americans and government organizations from Cuba. Because all teams participating in the World Baseball Classic would be receiving American funds for their participation, the Treasury Department saw this as a violation of the embargo. Thus, they declined Major League Baseball’s request for a permit for Cuba.

A few weeks later, after much political maneuvering by Major League Baseball and members of the government sympathetic to Cuba, the Treasury Department reversed its decision. Cuba could send a team to the tournament on the condition that they do not profit off of the tournament. In turn, Fidel Castro agreed to donate any proceeds from the World Baseball Classic to hurricane-relief organizations helping the island recover from a damaging 2005 hurricane season.

During his analysis of the situation, Johnson was highly critical of the Treasury Department’s attempts at shutting Cuba out of the tournament. While Americans often view Cuba as a country in need of democratization, the American government, Johnson argued, should work to improve its own image among the inhabitants of Cuba. We shouldn’t just be seen as a threat to the Cuban government. Stressing collaboration through sports, Johnson spoke of the need to win what amounts to propaganda battles in Cuba. While Castro spouts off anti-American rhetoric to a captive audience, the United States has to earn the trust of the Cuban people if the American-Cuban relationship is to improve during and, arguably more importantly, after Castro’s lifetime.

By allowing the Cubans into the World Baseball Classic, Johnson argued, it puts politics in the background. “The thing we have to gain is their opportunity to see the United States and to have a fellowship through sports,” he said. “In baseball, we can begin to recognize others on the island who are as big on Cuba as Castro is. We can show our flag in ways that do not threaten the government.”

The future of U.S.-Cuba interactions is very much up for grabs. Castro, who turns 80 in August, will not be around forever, and the fight for the political future of Cuba is sure to invoke U.S. intervention once El Presidente passes on. Meanwhile, Cuba and America have much in common, and Americans should be looking for ways to reach out to Cubans to show a compassionate side. A deep passion for baseball, the national sport of these two countries, is as good a starting place as any.

With the World Baseball Classic just a few weeks away, Cubans may earn a different glimpse of American society. This time, Cubans will see many players they consider heroes. They will compete against the Derek Jeter’s, Mark Teixeira’s, David Ortiz’s, and Johan Santana’s. And the Cuban National Team, Gold medal finalists in 2004, will battle for the tournament’s top spot.

So as Cuban baseball fans – and that is, according to Baxter and Wendel, all 11 million Cubans – and the National Team prepares for this tournament, the world will just have to wait and see what the future holds for American-Cuban dialogues. The common language of baseball could just serve to unite two neighboring countries. That is, if Cuba participates in the tournament. It is no sure thing.


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