by Peter C. Bjarkman
Only two weeks remain before the first crack of the bat in Beijing and as usual Cuba’s “hot stove league” rooters are again dreading a potential collapse from this year’s edition of their beloved defending Olympic champions. The tune-up Haarlem Honkbal week is now engraved in the history books and the results—a second place finish and two tough losses to a USA college all-star squad bound for the Prague-based World University Games—were far less than satisfying for most island fanatics. What disarmed skeptical Cuban fans most, perhaps, was an apparent total breakdown of the team’s touted slugging line-up against what appeared to most observers back home as only “no-name” second-class opposition pitching. The Cuban offensive stat line in Haarlem was, by almost any measure, anything but impressive: a sub-.240 team batting average, 21 total runs in seven games, double figures in base hits on only a single occasion (versus an also-ran Dutch ball club that finished 1-5), single-game highs of 5 and 6 runs (both against the Japanese collegiate all-stars), and a grand total of but two round-trippers (Bell’s crucial game-winning blast in the semifinals, and Garlobo’s solo shot against the same club in pool play). It seemed to be of little consolation that Haarlem Honkbal has historically been the one international tournament in which Cuba has never enjoyed much dominance (usually sending second-level squads and finishing second three times and third once in the four post-2000 editions of the event); nor were island fanatics pacified by an explanation that Antonio Pacheco’s current Olympic squad was using Haarlem primarily as a setting for fine-tuning and physical conditioning of its Beijing roster. Cuba didn’t win big in Haarlem, and when Cuban doesn’t win big anywhere alarm bells begin to peal loudly from Pinar to Santiago, and at all points found in between.
Hard on the heels of an embarrassing double loss to the Americans in Holland came news of the final cuts necessary to whittle down an Olympic roster—including a pair of highly controversial decisions to drop long-productive DH Osmani Urrutia and hard-hitting backup catcher Yosvany Peraza in favor of aging Santiago backstop Rolando Meriño and little-used Santiago replacement infielder Luis Navas. Rabid second-guessers in Havana were quick to denounce these roster moves as likely evidence that manager Pacheco and Commissioner Higinio Vélez (the current and former Santiago managers) were likely playing favorites regarding both Meriño and Navas. And if these recent developments were not unsettling enough, now looming on the horizon is a crucial Beijing Olympics tournament scheduled to open in China in mid-August and holding special added significance as the last such Olympic tournament until at least 2016. Since baseball has been temporarily dropped from the agenda of the 2012 London Games, failure to win gold in Beijing could mean at least a dozen empty years between coveted Olympic titles for baseball’s long-reigning world champions. Cuba’s seemingly weak showing in Haarlem could hardly be expected to raise much optimism entering an Olympic challenge that promises to include the strongest competition any Cuban squad (with the possible exception of the WBC team) has likely ever faced. If Cuban fans are always alarmists about every stumble by their national heroes, this time around the panic might almost seem understandable, even if nonetheless slightly overblown.
Freddie Cepeda enjoys a moment’s rest from the conditioning regimen that filled up Team Cuba’s agenda in Haarlem.
It seems, then, that the time is ripe for this writer—as the one veteran Cuba League baseball watcher who was actually present on the scene to witness the team’s lackluster performances in Haarlem—to weigh in on all three of these compelling issues—the “disappointing” Haarlem performance, the hot-button decision to drop Urrutia from the Olympic roster, and the perhaps diminished prospects for victory in Beijing.. The Cuban press corps was entirely absent in Haarlem (economics was the reason), and while the silent Cuban bats were certainly noticeable even from the far perspective of distant Havana, nonetheless some of the reports coming from the island’s media in recent days seem to miss the details of much of what has been happening with the Cuban team on its current jaunt through Europe and Asia.
For starters, to suggest that pitchers shutting down the Cuban lineup in Haarlem where merely “inferior nobodies” fails to acknowledge the realities of the recent Haarlem tournament. The trio of Japanese youngsters who hurled the bulk of the innings against Cuban bats (Toshiki Tsuboi, Shinji Iwata, Yusuke Inoue) are all top collegians about to be eagerly drafted next summer by Japanese Central and Pacific League pro clubs. Tsuboi and and Inone trailed only Steve Strasburg (the only amateur on the upcoming American Beijing Olympic roster) for the tournament strikeout title, while Iwata led the Haarlem field with a perfect 0.00 ERA over 18 innings of work. Two Americans who drilled holes in Cuban bats (starter Mike Minor and closer Kendal Volz) will both be certain first round choices in next June’s MLB draft lottery. And opening game Dutch Antilles starter Juan Carlos Sulbaran (who also mystified Cuban hitters for six innings) is an unsigned draft property of the National League Cincinnati Reds. There was no Ben Sheets in this field (although Strasburg may show even more promise at this stage than the American 2000 Olympic hero); but there were plenty of budding big leaguers.
Also, to deny the fact that slumps occasionally happen to the best-hitting teams at the most surprising moments is to turn a blind eye to baseball’s stark realities. Cuban fans and Cuban writers are, of course, somewhat spoiled by such relentless success. This is one of the beauties as well as one of the curses of Cuban baseball, to be sure. There are no fans more proud, informed, or knowledgeable to be found anywhere in the baseball universe; at the same time, a half-century of almost endless victories in international tournaments tends to make any loss seem like an unacceptable upset and any slump or off-day performance appear as a clarion call that the end of Cuban baseball as we know it is likely near at hand. All good teams lose from time to time in this most fickle and unpredictable sport, and it isn’t always simply because that team underperforms, or because a manager or technical commission was guilty of some bonehead blunder or unforgivable misstep. Sometimes in baseball at any level the ball just inexplicably bounces the wrong way; the best team doesn’t always come home a winner. This is the beauty and the pain of a sport in which a few millimeters directional difference in the trajectory of a savagely stung line drive will likely mark the difference between a game-winning double, or a rally-killing double play. But these are realities often overlooked in Havana, where the national team has miraculously maintained a .940 winning percentage over nearly five complete decades of top-level tournament play. Far more often than not those stinging line drives off Cuban bats have somehow found day light and thus raised expectations far beyond the reasonable or the rational.
What happened in Haarlem to Cuba’s vaunted slugging lineup was indeed something of a mild shock, yet it is hardly the omen of disaster that many Havana fanatics are already making it out to be. Nor is it entirely without logical explanation. Beyond the higher-than-appreciated pitching level of the opposition lies a further explanation found in the physical and mental condition of the Cuban team performing in Haarlem. Clearly the squad was first and foremost locked into a training mode and not into competition mode; the situation was largely the same as it had been throughout the month of June, during the Havana José Huelga Tournament competitions with Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Cuban batters in Haarlem were still taking 200-plus swings daily in the batting cage, plus also running and doing weigh training during morning sessions before afternoon or evening ballgames. And without suggesting the team wasn’t concerned with winning (Cuban clubs never take losing lightly, especially against the Americans), this was definitely an event where the focus was entirely on Beijing and not on Haarlem itself. Victory was an obvious aim in Holland, but it was certainly not a preoccupation for the Cuban forces.
This writer suggested in the aftermath of the WBC finale with Japan that the Cuban club in that match didn’t seem to display the same psychological edge and killer instinct that are normally telling trademarks of Cuban teams in major international tournaments. At San Diego in March 2006 the Cubans had already proven themselves to 11 million adoring fans back home, as well as to a skeptical North American and Asian pro baseball universe; they had overachieved simply by reaching the WBC finale. The normal “victory-or-endless-embarrassment at home” atmosphere usually dogging national teams was simply not present in San Diego, as it normally is for Cuban squads in Olympic or World Cup gold medal matches. I am not suggesting this was a conscious thing for the ballplayers in PETCO Park; but it was a palpable feeling nonetheless for those of us on the field with the Cuban team moments before the WBC title match. That WBC Cuban ball club wasn’t entirely ready to play after its huge victories over the Dominican two days earlier and the Puerto Ricans erarlier in the week at San Juan; moral victory was already stuffed in their back pockets. And something similar seemed to exist in the air in Haarlem this year. These were not the games that truly mattered; these were not the contests that would be remembered beyond tomorrow. This was “spring training” in a manner of speaking, after all. Believe me, this Cuban team will be more than ready when it gets to Beijing and smells Olympic gold. If anything, Haarlem may have served its purpose as an important and much needed wake-up call. This team will come out firing on all cylinders on August 13 when it faces Japan’s professional all-stars. Victory will not be assured in Beijing, by any stretch, but it won’t be taken lightly either. To bury this talented Cuban team now—either in Tokyo, Beijing, here stateside, or in Havana—would be a most dangerous miscalculation indeed.
Before moving on to the Urrutia debate, it should be remarked that there were also some very positive signs coming out of the Haarlem tournament, and these plusses should not be altogether overlooked by Team Cuba boosters. Key to victory in China will be the ability of Cuba’s talented but untested pitching staff to hold in check the professional bats displayed by the USA, Japanese and Canadian lineups (all of which will boast top minor leaguers or all-star Japanese League talents). Cuban hitters can not be expected to carry the load if the veteran starting corps of Vera, Palma, Maya, Jonder Martínez and Yulieski González and the bullpen contingent of Norberto González, Yadir Pedroso, Odelín and Lazo fails to keep the club in games into late innings, when most Cuban squads tend to work their magic. Going into Haarlem my own biggest fear concerning this edition of Team Cuba was precisely the pitching—Lazo is not the same closer he was five years ago, Yulieski González has been consistently brilliant at home but not always effective in international outings, Odelín has not been the same pitcher of late he was in Sydney in 2000 or in San Juan during the WBC miracle. Yet the pitching was indeed solid enough in Haarlem, with Cuba’s sub-2.00 team ERA topped only by the stellar American staff. Vera, Maya and Jonder Martínez were all especially sharp, and Lazo at times looked like the true Lazo of old, especially in the closing innings of the clutch semifinal win over surprising Japan. Only two decidedly disastrous outings by Yulieski González (versus the opportunistic Americans and Japanese) fell squarely on the negative side of the ledger. And the hitting, if consistently sub par, was nonetheless of the clutch variety in all games but two. Bell’s crucial blast in the semifinals sealed a vital victory needed to reach the finals; Despaigne’s pinch-hit double in the seventh rescued the opener with the Dutch Antilles; Cuba had its chances to pull out the first match with the Americans (runners on second and third in the ninth, with only one out and Meriño and Urgelles coming to the plate); and if Despaigne had not been badly jammed on a wicked slider from MLB-prospect Kyle Gibson with the bases loaded and one out in the home eighth of the finale, perhaps no one would today be talking of slumps or of failures during the Haarlem Honkbal Week. More times than not baseball is still truly a game of mere inches.
Regarding the final five cuts to trim the Olympic roster to the required 24 ballplayers, there certainly were some mild surprises forthcoming. Navas and Eriel Sánchez, both of whom had seen little Haarlem Week action, appeared to be the players most likely “on the bubble.” Miguel Lahera pitched effectively in several Haarlem relief outings and seemed to have proven he was ready for international competition. And with the overall lack of team offense on display in Holland, the experienced bat of Osmani Urrutia might have appeared more than ever a necessary ingredient for Beijing success. At least this is how it stacked up from afar. Urrutia would have made my own team if I were doing the selecting; and so would Peraza, for his big bat alone. Navas would have been my first cut, as I just don’t see where the spare middle infielder is going to see any game action with Enríquez, Gourriel and Olivera all capable of playing either second, third or shortstop (behind Paret) with equal facility. But again we are definitely in danger here of turning an interesting “hot stove” talking point into a unwarranted five-alarm signal of folly on the part of Cuba’s experienced national team brain trust. In the end, almost any last-minute cuts might have been made and the squad that was left would have still been a reputable contender capable of winning or at least seriously challenging for top honors in Beijing.
Author Pete Bjarkman weighs in on the controversies surrounding Team Cuba’s Haarlem performance and the final Beijing roster.
Osmani Urrutia has been one of the major contributors to Cuba’s international successes over the past several seasons—he batted a lofty .345 in the WBC, smashed the crucial game-deciding homer in a momentum-building opener with Australia at last fall’s World Cup, and hit at a .333 clip in the Athens Olympiad. He is also one of the greatest—if not the greatest—natural hitters in island baseball history and stands today as the league’s lifetime batting average leader. Any sentimental vote has to allow Urrutia a slot on the national team, even if his National Series performance in 2008 saw him dip to eighth slot in the batting race (although he still hit .364). But here is a perfect example of how little pure sentiment or past performance ever weighs on the decisions governing Team Cuba rosters. And it is exactly this ability, on the part of the technical commission and national team managers, to discount sentimentality that may go a long way toward explaining Cuba’s continued successes on the Olympic and World Cup baseball stage.
Pure and simple, there was no slot for Urrutia on this Cuban roster—not if one wanted to build the most balanced and flexible lineup possible. Urrutia is now a one-dimensional player who can still wield an effective bat yet do little else. He was not going don a glove in an outfield consisting of Bell, Duvergel, Urgellés, Despainge and occasionally Cepeda. With Cepeda (Cuba’s most consistently dangerous hitter in international venues over the past half-dozen years) and Despaigne (the best young slugger on the island) alternating between the DH and left field slots—and with Meriño and Eriel Sánchez also capable of effective DH performances, Urrutia was no longer a vital DH candidate. And even if he were to be employed as a pinch-hitter, he would almost certainly have to be replaced with a pinch-runner every time he reached base. There was no need on this talented roster to carry a player with only a single limited role and no flexibility. A stronger argument may be made for keeping Peraza, who had a monster National Series and has fast developed as an adequate receiver as well as potent slugger; but having watched both the Huelga and Haarlem tournaments first hand I can also understand the decision to go with Meriño and Sánchez in the backup catchers’ roles. Peraza was overmatched by USA pitchers Mike Minor and Kyle Gibson in his one appearance in Haarlem, striking out twice and weakly popping out to first base. And with a Haarlem week devoted heavily to conditioning and physical training, there may also have been some question about Peraza work ethic in the exercise room. A third and perhaps most vital factor was that Peraza offered neither the international experience nor flexibility that were attached to Sánchez and Meriño (both of whom also batted over .350 in the recent National Series). The latter two can not only DH but also boast credentials as experienced first basemen (and thus adequate right-handed late-inning replacements for lefty-swinging Alex Mayeta).
Perhaps the biggest surprise for this writer, personally, was the decision to keep Luis Navas on the squad as a sixth infielder, and the consequent decision to remove promising Habana Province closer Miguel Lahera from the roster. Navas seems limited to a pinch running role (something that Héctor Olivera can also do) if he plays at all. If Navas offers additional infield insurance, Lahera would have provided a healthy bull-pen arm that might appear to be far more utilitarian against the type of experienced Japanese, Korean, American, Canadian and Dutch hitters the Cubans will encounter in Beijing. Lahera was a surprising bright spot in Haarlem, picking up one of the team’s two saves (Lazo had the other) and is certainly a top prospect for national team play in the immediate future.
But all these are definitely very minor quibbles. It is a well-known adage that Cuba is an island of ten million managers. If baseball is far and away the island’s favorite sport, it is also true that second-guessing national team management is Cuba’s number two ranking national pastime. No matter what lineup was finally settled upon, there would be plenty in the media and in the grandstands back home who would have found fault with the absence or inclusion of this player or that. The two most pressure-packed jobs on the Cuban island are those of national team manager and baseball commissioner; Pacheco will be criticized up and down the island for every defensive lapse, ineffective pitching outing, or late-inning strikeout with runners in scoring position. That is the nature of the beast that is Cuban baseball. The reality is that, after all the debates are settled, this is a Cuban team the equal of any other combination that might have been arrived at. The 24-man roster features a delicate balance of youth and experience, with 13 veterans of the Athens plus 11 newcomers to Olympic play (nine of whom are nonetheless veterans of World Cup, Pan Am Games, or WBC play). Alexei Bell is the only “true rookie” in the starting lineup and Bell may indeed be the most dangerous hitter Cuba has stuffed into its lineup since the 2000 retirement of Omar Linares and Orestes Kindelán. Duvergel and Enríquez (third ranking hitter in league history) offer a potent attack at the top of the lineup. Bell and Despaigne have tremendous power in the middle of the batting order, Freddie Cepeda has been Cuba’s top clutch performer in big games for most of the decade, Pestano was the batting champ and MVP of the last Olympiad in Athens, and it is tough to think of a better number nine hitter gracing any big league lineup than Eduardo Paret (coming off one of his top offensive seasons at .328, with a .500 slugging average). Suggest an alternative starter at any of the eight field positions and then explain to me how your alternative choice substantially improves this team in any measurable way.
This is one of the strongest national teams in Cuban baseball annals, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Emergence of Alexei Bell and Alfredo Despaigne arguably make this squad stronger than the one that shocked international observers at the inaugural MLB World Baseball Classic. But that in itself does not guarantee that victory will be a cakewalk or even anything short of a miraculous achievement. This is no longer 1996 Atlanta or even 2000 Sydney. Japanese pro all-stars (featuring ace starter Koji Uehara of the Yomiuri Giants, phenom hurler Yu Darvish of the Nippon Ham Fighters, and a bevy of hard hitting pro outfielders) will easily be the best Asian squad ever entered into Olympic competition. The USA lineup of AAA prospects boasts San Diego State freshman Stephen Strasburg—strikeout leader in Haarlem and perhaps the best pro prospect not yet pitching in the majors—as well as late-addition infielder Jayson Nix, demoted to the minors only this week by the Colorado Rockies. Japan and Team USA deserve sharing the favorite’s role with the defending champions, and Cuba must square off against both top challengers within the first three games. Competition has improved dramatically over eight years since the debut of pros during the 2000 Sydney tournament. Cuba’s top stars are no longer competing with collegiate prospects still a half-dozen years away from top professional play but must now face veterans of AAA competition and of the Japanese major leagues. It is no longer quite the same ball game.
The road to another Olympic medal which begins on August 13 and culminates ten days later will be anything but a smooth highway to negotiate. There will be plenty of hills, valleys and pot holes along the way. Two of the sport’s most remarkable streaks will also lie squarely on the line next month in Beijing. Perhaps of lesser significance—due to the smaller chronology—is the fact that Cuba remains the only country boasting a slot in each of the four Olympiad gold medal finals since the sport first became an official medals competition back in 1992 at Barcelona. To date the Cubans own three gold medallions and a single silver medal “failure” which came with the 2000 loss to Ben Sheets and Team USA in Sydney. Far more remarkable is a continuing Cuban half-century string of either outright victories, or appearances in the finals, in 49 straight major international tournaments. In forty-nine events at the top level of international baseball staged since 1961, Cuba has claimed victory on forty-two occasions. This string includes the 2006 World Baseball Classic, the four previous Olympic tournaments, 19 editions of the World Cup (earlier called the Amateur World Series), 12 meetings of the Pan American Games, and 13 reunions of the IBAF Intercontinental Cup. On seven occasions when Cuban teams have not walked away as champions, they have nonetheless earned a silver medal with a loss in the title game. (For full details of this unparalleled championship run, interested readers are referred to my earlier www.baseballdecuba.com column published in November 2007, at the end of the recent Taipei World Cup. See http://www.baseballdecuba.com/CMnewsContainer.asp?id=420.) There is no other string of this type found anywhere in the history of either amateur or professional team sports.
Cuba’s half-century lock on a berth in the finals of big international tournaments must of course come to an end at some point. And with international competition growing in stature with each passing season, that time undoubtedly grows nearer and nearer at warp speed. When it comes, there will inevitably be much lamentation and finger pointing throughout Cuban baseball circles, which have known little of defeat or disappointment in the full lifetime of most of the island’s fanatic baseball supporters. Will the temporary end to the string come in Beijing, or will it be delayed perhaps to the second installment of the WBC “Classico” next March, or even to the 2009 World Cup slated for Europe next September? No bet here is safe. I would never put my money against the Cubans in the big international events, no matter what the odds might be against them. They have invented miracles so many times, and we may well be on the verge of yet another. If Cuba does not reach the finals this time around it will assuredly have more to do with the bounce of the ball and the talent of the opposition than with any issues of roster selection on this year’s team. But one thing I am willing to bet on is that even if this team stumbles in Beijing, loss will not mark the end of the of the island’s proud baseball legacy. There is simply too much tradition and too much good talent on the island for that to happen.
Team Cuba will be heard from again soon enough. And in the wake of what some Cuban fans and writers have prematurely labeled “the disaster in Haarlem”, Cuba’s gold medal juggernaut may return to center stage far sooner than some skeptics are now predicting.
Peter C. Bjarkman is the English-language columnist for www.baseballdecuba.com and is widely considered the leading historian of Cuba’s pre-revolution and post-revolution baseball. His award-winning books include A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (2007) and Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball (1999, with Mark Rucker). He is currently completing work on two volumes—Baseball’s Other Big Red Machine: A History of the Cuban National Team and Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball, 1962-2007—both scheduled for publication in 2008 by McFarland & Company.