“Hombres not Nombres”

Spring 2006

Bob Oram writes on how Cuba competed against the world’s best in the recent US Baseball Classic

The US government tried to stop Cuba competing in the first World Baseball Classic in March, first blocking their visa applications, then claiming that any money earned from TV rights would break the blockade. Bob Oram reports on how the Cuban team defied the pundits and made it all the way to the finals...

Cuba’s team was literally an inch from losing its opening game in the World Baseball Classic against Panama on 8 March, and facing almost certain first round elimination.

Twelve days later it had defied all predictions and was in the finals after defeating three powerhouses packed with US Major League all-stars. The final game against Japan was played on the evening of 20 March in front of a full Petco Park stadium in San Diego, with fans waving both Cuban and Japanese flags and an entire country of baseball fans gathered at homes and public places in Cuba to see the match.

The competition was advertised from the start as the first legitimate global championship tournament in which top stars from the United States - the world’s self-anointed best professional league - would battle for pride while wearing the uniforms of their native countries.

After almost three weeks of exciting baseball that gripped television audiences throughout Latin America, Asia and North America, the world watched a most surprising grand finale between Cuba and Japan in California.

For the US Major League Baseball (MLB) executives it was 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.

Independent of the outcome, 10-6 to Japan, the two teams had already proven that their baseball leagues produce players of the highest calibre, having brushed aside baseball giants like the United States, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Cuba made it further than three of New York Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner’s superstar multimillionaires including Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

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.

Yes, the US has been able to lure many of the world’s best athletes, professionals and artists from other countries, mainly for financial reasons. However, in the case of baseball, Asia and Latin America have totally broken the myth of US superiority. Cuba (the only team in the tournament with no pro leaguers in its stable) has 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.

However, because of recently tightened U.S. travel restrictions as part of the US blockade against the country, Cuba almost didn’t get to play in the tournament. It took an appeal by the MLB and a promise by Cuba that any winnings would go to hurricane Katrina relief - thus ensuring no money went to the government - for the U.S. Treasury Department to reverse its initial ruling banning Cuba.

Several sports “experts” said the island really didn’t want to play because its team couldn’t compete with the big boys. Many in the USA have always believed Cuba’s reputation was overblown, that their miraculous string of successes was earned in cheap fashion against amateur or college level opponents. The prevailing wisdom was that the Cuban leaguers could never compete head-to-head against top big leaguers.

How so wrong that perception has now been proved. Never again should the strength and resilience of Cuban baseball be so callously doubted. President Fidel Castro originally surprised the cynics by saying “Yes of course we accept the challenge... Cuba will play... even though they have stolen many of our good players.” And play they did, defeating Venezuela and Puerto Rico to get to the semifinals and the intimidating Dominicans to reach the finals.

Cuban team manager Higinio Velez -who managed his pitchers throughout the tournament with the consummate skills of big league bench boss- uttered the most memorable line before the final 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 these was slugging outfielder Frederich Cepeda - the only player in to hit safely in all seven games going into the finals - who captured the theme of Cuba’s stunning successes when he reminded the American press that “you cannot 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.”

The Cubans have mastered the art of playing in short tournaments with a single-elimination championship round format. All of the team responsible for preparing the side, including 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 them physically and psychologically for the stiffest challenge in their nation’s century-plus sports history.

As the final game developed, Cuba staged a final rally in the eighth. Cepeda delivered a two-run homer off Japan reliever Shunsuke Watanabe to pull the Cubans to 6-5, and their spirited fans who had packed Petco Park, kept chanting “Cuba! Cuba!”, blowing horns and waving flags. But Japan and its effective small-ball style exposed weaknesses in a Cuban pitching staff that had been near perfect in its previous seven WBC games.

Cepeda may have said it best though when he described what this run meant in his country. “If we could win, that would be the greatest victory that would have been expected in Cuban baseball,” he said. “The world has been waiting for this day playing against the major leaguers.”

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 status, high-salaried forces of the US major leagues. Their achievement with coming second has sent shockwaves throughout the baseball universe. A legitimate question is now being raised about MLB’s centerpiece position in it: perhaps the big leagues no longer possess the highest quality baseball in the world, only the most expensive.

The next Championship is tentatively set for 2009 and Cuban officials have hinted they would like to be considered to host it. Many, including Cuba, hope it will come sooner.

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