Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Cuba scrambles to shine in baseball's Classic

From MSNBC Commentary below the article:

Winner of three Olympic gold medals has suffered defections, injuries

By Mary Murray
NBC News
Updated: 2:25 p.m. ET Feb. 15, 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 States.

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 baseball prowess.

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' Danys Baez.

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 and Venezuela.

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 full-time.

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.

Serious lockdown
"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 a secret.

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 order.

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 game.

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 batters.

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" him.

The team 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 rising stars.

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.


I honestly don't know how to react to this article. The first thing that caught my attention was the remark about Cuba losing its talent to the big leagues. It's as if Cuba is a victim. No other country complains about losing talent to the bigs. In fact when players from other countries play in the US the people of those countries are proud. Ichiro is huge celebrity in Japan because of his success in the states.

The next thing is all the cloak and dagger crap. The team is in a "lock down". Wow that shouldn't be too hard to accomplish in a police state. Who are they trying to keep out? And why? Doesn't make any sense to me. A "gag order" for the players"? Everybody in Cuba is under a gag order (apparently including you Ms. Murray).

And "strategy"? It's baseball for Pete's sake! I'm a huge baseball fan, in fact I have a baseball blog which I neglect because of this one but there's no super secret strategy to baseball. It's not like coming out in the Super Bowl with some new defensive scheme that nobody has ever seen before. To quote Bull Durham, "You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball."

The thing that really gets me is the way the article is written. It's matter of fact. It's "everything is normal here in baseball crazed Cuba." Don't mind that nasty little dictator and why it is that Cuba was going to be banned from playing in this thing. And why players defect whenever they get the opportunity. Cuba shouldn't be so worried about security at their training camp. They should worry about it at the games. I hope the whole team walks off together to defect.

Of course Cubans are big fans of baseball. They always were. And baseball does for Cubans pretty much what it does for us. It gives them an escape. And they have a lot more to escape from. On the field, there's no castro, there's no censorship to worry about. Just the game.

I can't wait for the day when Cubans will be able to watch the World Series in their homes and see their heroes playing baseball's largest stage. Hurry up and die already you old fart!

1 comment:

La Ventanita said...

That's because those other players from other countries, can FREELY play in the majors and still go back to their countries and play in their you know Cubans are denied that right.