August 16, 2010
by Peter Bjarkman
Alfredo Despaigne’s dramatic tenth-inning walk-off three-run homer provided an unsurpassed climax to what may arguably have been the most thrilling Cuba-USA showdown game ever staged. And the heart-stopping 4-3 comeback was also easily one of the most significant-ever matches between the two fierce longtime rivals. Some in Cuba may point nostalgically to the 1987 13-9 Pan American Games Gold Medal triumph in Indianapolis (where Cuba rallied for five tallies in the final two frames against an overworked future major leaguer named Cris Carpenter), or to the 4-3 1988 World Cup finale in Parma (capped with Lourdes Gourriel’s game-winning blast against an American squad featuring the likes of Robin Ventura, Tino Martínez, and Ben MacDonald); yet neither of those games were laced with quite as much drama or featured nearly as much sterling defensive play by both squads as the one staged in Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu Stadium at the conclusion of the fifth edition of baseball’s World University Championships. The crowd may have been relatively small (an estimated 4000 were on hand for the memorable clash), and the relatively new championship venue may not yet hold the same luster as more high profile IBAF events like the World Cup or Olympic Games tournaments. Yet in the long series of contests between the world’s two top ball-playing nations dating back to the 1930s, no single showdown match has carried quite the same weight for Cuba’s international baseball prestige. And no Cuba-USA showdown—perhaps no single gold medal game matching the powerhouse Cubans with any of their international rivals—has ever concluded with a more heart-stopping or magical single dramatic moment.
There was no disputing the artistic brilliance of the Tokyo finale in pure baseball terms. Two big league scouts sent emails to this author in the moments following Despaigne’s final blast affirming that this might have been the best-played international tournament contest that either had ever witnessed. Team USA manager Bill Kinneberg was subsequently quoted in an interview published on the USA Baseball official website that “for intensity, passion, and great individual plays this was the best game I have ever been involved in.” Kinneberg also lauded Cuban starter Miguel Alfredo González as being “as good as I have ever seen” and another guy (along with Despaigne) who should be in the big leagues. González and American starter Gerritt Cole (6’4” UCLA right hander) battled through seven scoreless innings (filled with a number of defensive gems) before leadoff hitter Andrew Maggi (Arizona State) opened the scoring with a surprise solo shot off Miguel Alfredo in the top of the eighth. But Despaigne immediately knotted the tense contest with an opposite field blast off reliever Noe Ramirez (Cal State Fullerton) in the bottom of the same frame. The stage was merely being set for what would soon follow.
Cuba had a golden opportunity to salt away sweet victory in the home ninth when catcher Frank Camilo Morejón opened with a ringing double and was immediately replaced by pinch runner Ramón Lunar. The inning was quickly complicated for the Americans after Yorbis Borroto was hit by a pitch, and then both runners advanced on a passed ball before Leonys Martin walked to load the sacks with no one yet retired. Almost certain triumph now seemed at hand, but new reliever Nick Ramirez (also Call State Fullerton) induced a weak tap in front of the plate by Yoilan Cerce that resulted in a double play (cutting down Lunar at the plate). The rally died when Héctor Olivera flied out to deep center field with runners still lodged on second and third.
With the game forced into extra frames, traditional baseball strategies flew out the window with the evoking of the new tie-breaker regulation now widely know as the “Schiller Rule” (after former IBAF boss Harvey Schiller who first introduced it during the 2008 Beijing Olympics). The Americans opened the extra frame with runners automatically placed on first and second and (by manager’s choice) number-three-slot hitter Jackie Bradley at the plate. After Bradley successfully sacrificed both runners into scoring position, Miguel Alfredo walked clean-up slugger Ryan Wright (only his second free pass versus 14 Ks). Manager Eduardo Martin stayed with González who next induced an infield roller from George Springer that brought home the go-ahead tally. Pitcher Nick Ramirez (who also doubles as an infielder at Fullerton) then smashed a liner at first sacker José Abreu which resulted in a second out but also plated an insurance run. Miguel Alfredo was finally lifted for Vlad García who coaxed the final out on an infielder roller. Neither tenth-inning tally was charged to Miguel Alfredo’s ledger, since the two “automatic” base runners permitted by the Schiller Rule do not count as earned runs if and when they score.
While this unforgettable game will long be remembered mainly for Despaigne’s slugging heroics, much of the credit for victory also has to fall to Miguel Alfredo González, who authored one of the truly great pitching performances in Cuba’s storied international tournament history. The young Habana Province righty worked 9.2 brilliant innings, tossing 151 pitches, never really tiring, and holding the strong USA bats at bay throughout the entire match. Miguel Alfredo’s 14 strikeout performance echoed the similar 2002 gold medal outing of Pedro Luis Lazo, when the eventual long-time national team closer would gun down 17 American hitters at the inaugural World University Championships in Messina, Italy. One great irony of this year’s title match would be the fact that MAG was not in the end the game’s pitcher of record, with the scorebook victory ultimately being credited (by baseball’s quirking scoring methods) to reliever Vladimir García who had tossed only a single final pitch.
With the Americans largely gifted two runs (without benefit of a single hit reaching the outfield) through the universally demeaned “Schiller Rule” extra-inning system, things once again looked bleak for the ill-starred islanders, who have been riding an uncharacteristic string of disappointing gold medal losses to Team USA in recent international seasons. But the Cubans would also now benefit from the same tie-breaking regulations which allowed manager Eduardo Martin to station speedy Leonys Martin at second and Yoilan Cerce at first and thus bring the heart of the Cuban lineup to the plate in the persons of Olivera, Despaigne and Céspedes (the tournament RBI pacesetter with 14). Olivera (who just made the final out in the ninth with the potential winning runs aboard) again stroked a long harmless fly to center that moved Martin to third and also should easily have advanced Cerce (representing the tying tally) to second. Cerce unaccountably moved too far from the bag and thus had to retreat to first after the catch, a potentially fatal mental error since it not only kept the tying run off second but also left the door open to a possible game-ending double play with Granma teammates Despaigne and Céspedes now coming to the plate.
Manager Kinneberg elected to stay with southpaw Ramirez against one of the strongest right-handed swingers on the planet and Despaigne wasted little time in making the Americans pay. After slapping the initial inside fastball into the dirt for a first strike, Despaigne next caught all of a low slider that stayed down in the strike zone and launched easily one of the most impressive and memorable rockets of island baseball annals. (For those who wish to see Despaigne’s heroics and the follow-up interviews with Eduardo Martin and Despaigne himself, the full video is available from www.BaseballdeCuba.com on the following link: http://www.baseballdecuba.com/49SN-VIDEOS/VIDEOS.html.)
It is easy enough to argue for the dramatic Friday night victory as both the most crucial and even the most memorable in Cuba-USA showdown annals. Cuban fans have increasingly bemoaned the fact that their beloved heroes had not garnered gold during a depressingly lengthy series of tournament near-misses. Cuban teams so thoroughly dominated IBAF events (often against very mediocre competition) in the half-century between 1959 and 2007 that victory became largely a forgone conclusion. Recent decades witnessed a string of World Cup victories that stretched to nine straight titles between 1984 (Tokyo) and 2005 (Holland)—a stretch that also witness 82 single game wins alongside a mere 3 meaningless pool round defeats. Between April 1961 (Amateur World Series #15 in Costa Rica) and the August 2008 Beijing Olympics Cuban teams ran up a string of 50 consecutive events which brought either outright victory or at least a spot in the championship final. As I have so often written, there is no other dynasty string in the history of this or any other sport that matches this relentless Cuban winning skein. And then in late 2007 the roof seemed to fall in. The World Cups events of both 2007 (Taiwan) and 2009 (Europe) brought disappointing silver medal finishes behind rival Team USA. The 2008 Olympic squad not only suffered a similar “near miss” versus Korea in Beijing, but also against a crack USA university club at Haarlem’s July 2008 tune-up event. After shocking the baseball universe with a marvelous run to the finals of the first MLB-sponsored “Clásico” of 2006, the Cuban squad at WBC II in 2009 couldn’t get past Japan in the second round. And second (Haarlem) and third (Thunder Bay) place finishes last month by a good Cuba B squad and a promising junior-level team only extended the agony.
Of course the reason for this seeming “slide” was a marked upswing in the level of international competition (now laced with seasoned professionals) and not at all any dip in the level of the Cuban national sport (as so many doomsayers on the island would have you believe). But it has certainly been true that Cuban baseball has been suffering a severe identity crisis of late and that for two years now Cuban teams have been playing under increased pressures in international venues. For that reason alone the Despaigne-inspired victory over the Americans outranks (or at least equals) all previous celebrated showdowns with vaunted American squads. Perhaps never in the modern era has a gold medal victory been quite so desperately needed merely to salvage Cuba’s longstanding premier reputation on the world baseball stage. From a merely psychological standpoint, no victory could have been any bigger than this one for an entire current generation of Cuban fans and players alike.
And turning from historic importance to mere fleeting drama and thrill, this most recent game again boasts its strong claim as the top Cuba-USA match ever. This was indeed a truly landmark international tournament contest since it was the first-ever Gold Medal finale to be punctuated by the new and controversial IBAF extra-inning tie-breaker rule. Love it (as few if any fans, players or managers do) or hate it (as any baseball traditionalist must), the “Schiller Rule” finish adds to such games the kind of unbearable tension found in World Cup soccer shootouts and American professional football “sudden death” overtimes. It may not be good baseball once teams start innings with a pair of “gift runners” on base, but it certainly is incomparable theater. Despaigne’s dramatic walk-off blast highlighted the first international championship ever decided by the new and controversial game-shortening requirements. That fact alone vaults it to the top of the list.
Despaigne’s pair of dramatic final-game homers in Tokyo were not only the two most significant blasts of his short career, but also an extension of a remarkable power display that has now run for more than two full years. Two years back the Granma “Stallion” rewrote Alexei Bell’s National Series homer mark with a record 32; this spring he duplicated the feat. Last fall in Europe he wrote his name in the World Cup record books with 11 round-trippers in only 55 at-bats (breaking the previous mark of 9 by Orestes Kindelán). The final two blasts this week by the Granma slugger also seemed a fitting payback for a quickly forgotten pair of blows that almost turned the tide against the Americans last September in Nettuno. In the Gold Medal World Cup finals Despaigne smacked a towering opposite field eighth-inning homer off Brad Lincoln that cut a large USA lead to 10-5. And then in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and the bases stuffed, Despaigne launched a second towering fly to left field that was corralled only several feet short of the wall. That drive almost put Cuba back into the game and barely missed forcing a perhaps altogether miraculous gold medal finish. What Despaigne barely missed accomplishing against the Americans last September in Italy, he was thus able to stage successfully this time around in Japan. This was easily the most dramatic reversal of recent history found anywhere in Cuban baseball annals.
Cuba made plenty of noise in a Tokyo tournament that was painfully one-sided until the final showdown match with the Americans. The early hitting stars in were Céspedes and Abreu, both hitting over .500 for the six-game stretch (as did Despaigne and Frank Camilio Morejón as well). The pair also tied Despaigne for the tournament home run title with four, and Céspedes was the RBI pacesetter with a final total of 14 runs knocked home. Cuba scored in double digits in every game before the finals, and the club batting average was a remarkable (and perhaps unprecedented in international play) aggregate .488. Céspedes beat up opposing hurlers in the pool round games with Korea, Japan and China, stroking 9 hits in 11 trips to the plate (including 4 homers, 2 doubles, and all 14 of his RBIs). Despaigne did not peak until the most dramatic moments were at hand, breaking out with a 3-for-5 game in the quarterfinals, going 4-for-5 in the semis (his second straight 3-RBI outing), and crushing two of the biggest blows of his young career in his final two trips to the plate and under the highest pressure of the week-long event.
The eventful Tokyo tournament also featured a rare perfect game authored by Guantánamo ace Dalier Hinojosa, and that “gem” notably came in Hinojosa’s first-ever-start for the national team. The perfect game tossed in the tournament quarterfinals was largely overshadowed by the Cuban slugging display staged by Despaigne, Céspedes and Abreu, yet it remains a landmark moment nonetheless. This was only the fifth-ever masterpiece authored by a Team Cuba hurler in international competitions and ironically two (the other by Lázaro Valle in 1989) have been knockout-shortened perfect games. Sri Lanka did not score a single run in its six Tokyo contests and Hinojosa was thus hardly facing talented batsmen in this match. Nevertheless any no-hitter (let alone a perfect game with no base runners permitted) is always one of baseball’s most difficult and thus rarest achievements, regardless of the opposition. And Hinojosa notably struck out all but five of the 21 hitters he was forced to face. This was also the first time a no-hitter has ever been authored during the medal elimination round (as opposed to pool play) of any official IBAF-sanctioned international event, as well as being the first gem witnessed in five reunions of the university championship event.
Team Cuba No-Hitters in Official International Tournaments
IBAF World Cup XXI (Havana, November 29, 1973)
Intercontinental Cup VIII (Havana, October 12, 1987)
Intercontinental Cup IX (San Juan, August 22, 1989)
Pan American Games XI (Havana, August 6, 1991)
World University Championships V (Tokyo, August 3, 2010)
Cuba’s noteworthy win in Tokyo should now provide a huge boast for a program that seemed perhaps to be slipping a notch or two over the past couple of international tournament seasons. The hue and cry that the Cubans haven’t been able to win a top prize on the major international circuit since summer 2007 (Pan American Games in Río) is now finally set to rest. If there are those in Cuba who discount or devalue this Tokyo championship because the university venue is not one of the showcase IBAF events, these naysayers are ignoring two central facts. The first is that the team managed by Eduardo Martin contained nearly two-thirds of the front-line Team Cuba roster (including three starting outfielders from the last World Baseball Classic and two starting infielders from last fall’s World Cup). A second is that the USA collegiate squad defeated this month in Asia was far more talented (even if it was not quite as good as the last edition that won in Haarlem in 2008) than most of the American university teams defeated in the 1980s or 1990s by the likes of Marquetti, Muñoz, Linares, Kindelán and company. And if this win takes some of the pressure off the next couple of editions of Team Cuba, the victory will also likely go a long way toward raising the stock of veteran manager Eduardo Martin. Martin now seems to be the clear frontrunner for the arduous challenge of directing a pair of island teams that will travel to San Juan (World Cup Qualifier) and Taipei (Intercontinental Cup) for the upcoming highlight events of this season’s early fall international campaign.
Peter C. Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely considered a leading authority on Cuban baseball, both past and present. He reports on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team for www.BaseballdeCuba.com and also writes a regular monthly Cuban League Report for www.ibaf.com. He is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.