Cuba scrambles to shine
in baseball's Classic
Winner of three Olympic
gold medals has suffered defections, injuries
By Mary Murray, producer.
NBC News, February 16, 2006.
HAVANA - Cuban baseball is gearing up for
a serious battle.
Its all-star team went into seclusion on
Wednesday for almost three weeks of power
training before heading to the World Baseball
Classic (WBC), where it has a chance of
a showdown with its archrival, the United
National pride is at stake. Cuba has won
three Olympic gold medals out the four contested
since baseball has been an official Olympic
sport in 1992. (The U.S.A. won the other,
in 2000.) However, the game has since been
declassified as an Olympic sport, leaving
the WBC as the lone venue to test international
In addition, the national team has suffered
from several defections to the American
big leagues as well as the retirements of
many players who have been key to Cuban
success in the past.
The defectors include Livan Hernandez,
now with the Washington Nationals; his brother
Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez,
playing this season with Arizona's Diamondbacks;
the White Sox's Jose Contreras and the Dodgers'
Thus the intense effort to be as prepared
as possible. The island's baseball commission
even went to the lengths of suspending this
year's national baseball season to let top
players culled from the island's 16 top
teams attend the camp.
The 16-team tournament, which kicks off
March 3 (with Cuba playing its first game
March 8), has been put together by the U.S.-based
Major League Baseball and the Major League
Baseball Players Association, and will include
squads from Australia, Canada, China, Chinese
Taipei, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy,
Netherlands, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Panama,
Puerto Rico, South Africa, the United States
Cuban players win greenlight
The Cuban players headed to the WBC are
classified as amateur athletes, even though
in all respects they train and play baseball
And they won't be joined by their professional
compatriots playing in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Although the WBC rules allow athletes living
abroad to compete for their home countries,
the Castro regime regards them as defectors.
However, the question as to whether the
Cuban Baseball Commission would have allowed
their participation never arose since no
foreign-based Cuban pros petitioned to play.
Initially the U.S. government barred the
Cuban team from participating - citing its
long-standing trade embargo on the communist
nation - but a license was issued after
Cuba proposed donating any proceeds to Hurricane
Katrina victims. The other 15 teams will
earn between one percent and 10 percent
of the profits, depending on advancement.
"We are running out of time. We have
just 20 days," said Higinio Velez,
national team manager since 2001 and the
man credited with leading Cuba to Olympic
gold in 2004.
Velez split the 60 players into two groups,
sending one to practice in Havana's Changa
Mederos Stadium and the other across the
city to the Latin American Stadium. He will
be able to take a 30-man roster to the tournament.
Security at the stadiums will be as tight
as "a bank vault," said sports
trainer Alexis Martin, with the goal of
keeping the players focused and strategy
Guards will be stationed at all entrances,
forbidding anyone but baseball's chosen
to get through the doors. In addition, cars
won't be permitted to park outside the stadiums
nor fans allowed in the surrounding area.
The press corps is banned from the premises
while players reportedly are under a gag
Additional security also is expected along
the top rows of the 55,000-seat Latin American
Stadium, on the lookout for anyone shooting
pictures or video from the adjacent rooftops
where fans routinely climb to catch a free
Baseball veterans pitch in
Nothing is being left to chance. Velez has
brought in an impressive array of retired
gold medalists and world champs to help
polish the relatively young national team.
Alexander Ramos, known as the "Iron
Horse" of Cuban baseball for holding
the record of most consecutive games played
- along with versatile infielder Antonio
Pacheco, the record holder for the most
hits in a Cuban national season - will coach
The outfielders will be coached by Javier
Mendez, who holds the national record for
hitting doubles, and the legendary Victor
Mesa, who led the team to gold in the 1992
Barcelona Olympics and made the national
team a dozen times.
In addition, German Mesa, once considered
the world's best amateur shortstop, signed
on as an outfield trainer. Meanwhile, two
retired national team pitchers, Jose Elosegui
and Julio Romero, along with superior contact
hitter Lazaro Vargas, also came on board.
They have their work cut out for them,
say the experts.
"Mainly, these young athletes will
need to work on cohesion," said Ismael
Sené, a retired diplomat who knows
as much about the game as any pro scout.
Some diamonds in the rough
The average age is 25. While many have excelled
in international amateur competitions, there's
some fear they could wilt next to opponents
packing experience in the U.S. major leagues.
And some are really young. Right-fielder
Dayan Viciedo is just 16 years old. He first
played for the country's junior team at
nine and last autumn earned Most Valuable
Player in the World Junior Championships
held in Monterrey, Mexico. He now plays
for his hometown Villa Clara team under
the tutelage of Olympic hero Mesa.
In an interview last winter, Mesa described
Viciedo as an athlete "with tremendous
power" but "a diamond in the rough."
That same article also quoted Viciedo as
confessing that packed stands "distract"
The team is also pinning hopes on 17-year-old
Alberto Soto, who can throw a ball more
than 90 mph and possesses five pitches.
Cuba's baseball commissioner recently held
up Soto as an example of the island's new
Another young player is third baseman Yuliesky
Gourriel, 21, considered by many to be Cuba's
best all-rounder. This season, Gourriel
already has 23 home runs, and with more
than two dozen games to go, he's expected
to break the national record of 28 home
runs in a season.
"Gourriel can cover third base, second
base, handle the outfield and swing a bat
like a demon," said Luis Manuel Iglesia,
a 39-year-old actor who never misses a game.
Island nation's baseball fever kicks in
Although Iglesia and other aficionados play
down the chances of their team winning the
tournament, they do look forward to a potent
display of Cuban talent.
One advantage for the island team is that
the WBC comes in the middle of the Cuban
season while American-based players are
just starting to train.
The Cuban team will play in a four-team
qualifying round from March 8 to 10 in Puerto
Rico. If they are successful there, the
team will advance to semifinals to be held
in San Diego's Petco Park on March 18. The
championship game will be held two days
later in the same stadium.
Cuban TV plans to televise the entire tournament
- and fans are eager to watch. "A big
part of the excitement will be to see our
players against the big stars, see how they
stack up," said Sené.
They'll have that opportunity from the
get-go - on March 10 when they go up against
Puerto Rico, whose current 60-man roster
contains 46 players who have played in the
U.S. and other professional leagues.
Expert fans weigh in
The young team's lack of experience has
not dampened their fan's enthusiasm or speculation
about their chances in the international
Auto mechanic Jorge Ramirez spends his
lunch hour arguing baseball at a park bench
in downtown Havana. The shouting gets really
loud when the talk turns to the lineup for
the WBC, with some fans arguing to sideline
the young talent in favor of the retired
tried and true.
"It all comes down to the pitchers
- who we have and how they measure up,"
Ramirez observes to everyone's nods.
"Things have never looked so bad.
How can you have a 17-year-old pitch against
pro players?" asked Ramirez.
It's been a tough season for Cuba's front-line
pitchers. Three of the island's best are
dealing with nagging injuries and one remains
In addition, WBC rules restricting the
use of a pitcher clashes with how Cuba tends
to play the game.
A player will be allowed just 65 pitches
in the first round, 80 pitches in the second
and 95 pitches per game in the semifinals
and final. Also, if a player threw 50 or
more pitches in a game, he has to sit out
a minimum of four days before pitching again.
Cuban managers tend to keep a pitcher working
as long as his arm is hot, a practice that
Velez has used extensively to compensate
for the drain of Cuban pitching talent.
"Given their age and lack of experience,
the challenge will be mental as much as
physical," said Agustin Marquetti,
60, who played in 22 seasons of national-level
baseball in Cuba, batting at .288 with 207
home runs and 1106 RBIs.
"You can't compare big-league ball
to amateur ball. The other teams play a
superior game to ours. But no matter, it's
a great opportunity to showcase our boys,"
Pride of place no matter what the chances
Lacking the power pitching it used to have,
leading NBC Sports analyst Tony Demarco
gives the Cuban team 40-1 odds of winning
in his online column. Cuban bookies are
waiting until the final tournament roster
is announced before laying down their odds
but may offer an even larger spread.
For baseball enthusiasts like Sené
it almost doesn't matter who wins - this
time around. "I'm just proud this team
made the pick. It shows we're a powerhouse
that can't be overlooked. And there's always
© 2006 MSNBC Interactive
© 2006 MSNBC.com