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.