by Peter C. Bjarkman
November 5, 2011
New IBAF rankings released on the heels of the recent IBAF World Cup (Panama) and the Pan American Games (Guadalajara) show Cuba clinging tenaciously to its perennial top ranking and Team USA managing to hold onto second slot a step ahead of Asian powers Korea and Japan. Both the Cubans and Americans posted similar performances last month (each walking off with silver and bronze medallions during back-to-back October tournaments), while Holland’s first-ever world championship (earned in Panama) and Canada’s initial Pan American title (Mexico) nudged those two emerging powers into fifth and sixth slots in the fourth annual IBAF rankings of the world’s 72 active baseball-playing nations.
Those in North America addicted to the corporate big league version of what was once “the American national pastime” will likely discard these rankings as illegitimate simply by claiming that USA Baseball never fields teams comprised of top-level major leaguers. But that caveat has at least a couple of drawbacks, both of which are underscored by two earlier editions of the MLB-sponsored World Baseball Classic. It might first and foremost be argued that a full-fledged employment of top big leaguers in IBAF events would more than likely vault either the Japanese, Venezuelans or Dominicans to the top of the heap before it ever put the Americans there. And fans arguing for American superiority in the sport also have to expunge from memory two WBC events in which a star-studded MLB version of Team USA failed to make the tournament finals on either occasion: Japan (twice), Korea and IBAF kingpin Cuba have so far been the only three World Baseball Classic gold medal competitors.
Viewed from a somewhat more realistic perspective, a number two slot on the world baseball stage is not at all inappropriate for a nation where baseball was once “the only game in town” but where the game of bats and balls has of late faded well behind professional and collegiate football as the country’s leading spectator pastime. Anyone who still believes that baseball ranks near the top of America’s preferred entertainment spectacles in this age of iPhones. iPods and iPads needs only to check the most recent network or cable television ratings. While an MLB fanatic might point proudly to a surge in ratings (14.7) for this year’s gripping World Series Game 7, he/she can only do so by ignoring the fact that a yawn-producing one-sided NFL blowout game the following Sunday night drew the very same viewership numbers. And anyone who believes that the diamond sport still tugs very strongly at the heartstrings of our American youth need only head out to the nearest vacant street corner lot any summer Saturday morning and listen in vain for the long-since-subsided crack of bat on ball.
Cuba continues its grip at the top of the world baseball pecking order despite a continued flood of complaints back home that the Cuban game has somehow slid from former prominence and now languishes in a wash of second-place international performances. It is true enough that a bronze medal finish in Guadalajara represented only the second occasion during the full half-century run of the island’s communist government that the islanders did not either win or at least reach the finals of a major senior-level international tournament. (The only other occasion was the disappointing second-round elimination suffered at the 2009 WBC in San Diego.) And even the most forgiving Cuban baseball booster has to chafe at a third straight World Cup silver-medal consolation praise and the realization that the vaunted Red Machine has now claimed only one major international title (2010 Intercontinental Cup) in the past half-dozen summers.
But is this so-called “slide” in Cuban international tournament domination actually a result of diminished Cuban talent; or rather is it the inevitable fallout of a more level playing field brought about by opening IBAF events after 1999 to top-level professional prospects and even a substantial sprinkling of former major leaguers? I have repeatedly argued that it is the latter and not the former. Cuban teams of the 2000s are equally as talented as those of the 1980s or 1990s (in fact likely quite a bit more talented); they no longer win every game or every gold mental simply because the sport is no longer being played with aluminum bats and against unseasoned collegiate or amateur league ball clubs. The fact that Cuba continues to march into the title games of tournament after tournament – despite the recent surge in professional opposition – should be the true headline story and the true measure of continued island baseball dominance.
Team Cuba’s performance in October – despite the disappointment of again being shut out of the gold medal circle – was far stronger than Havana denizens wish to admit. If victory-spoiled Cuban fans lament a third straight World Cup silver medal finish after nine straight tiles between 1984 and 2005, they also too quickly ignore the fact that Cuba has never finished lower than second place in a single World Cup event over the past sixty years (23 tournaments since 1951). And if the bronze medal earned in Guadalajara represented the end of a ten-tournament gold medal run it nevertheless also meant that Cuba has still only once ever finished out of the medal-winner’s circle in the fifteen Pan American Games events it has entered. If this failure, then by what possible standard could success ever be measured? Cuba’s international record over the past half-century-plus remains the most remarkable achievement in all of baseball history. And the current repeat at the top of the IBAF world rankings is only one additional small footnote to that remarkable story.
North American press reports of course also fail to appreciate Cuba’s current achievements and can only seem to stretch repeatedly for plausible-sounding explanations that demonstrate a dip in the quality current Cuban national teams. This is doubtless the inevitable price of so much relentless winning. In analyzing the recent October tournaments Baseball America emphasized that “the intimidation factor that Cuba used to have is totally gone now, especially on the mound.” The report traces a Cuban collapse to a decade of defections by top pitchers, beginning with the 2003 loss of José Contreras, and thus concludes that “a dozen years later Cuba has no Contreras, no ace, and its shows.”
But the Baseball America account, with its dismissal of current Cuban pitching, hardly rings quite true. Cuba lost but two games in Panama, both to the talented and prospect-rich Dutch, and both games were nip and tuck pitcher’s duals that went to the wire. The only team to display much offense against Cuba in Panama was Team USA (in an 8-7 Cuban victory) and even in that match the game in the end was salvaged by the brilliant Cuban relief hurling of Yadir Pedroso across the game’s final three frames. In Guadalajara the Cubans lost only once (to the rival Americans) and by a margin of a mere two runs. Granted, on that one occasion (the only occasion in 17 total October games) Cuban pitching was battered early on and thus Urquiola’s club fell behind 12-2 at the outset, thanks to a pair of disastrous innings. But then again the bullpen eventually held the Americans at bay during the game’s second half and in the end Cuba was but a single hit away in the eighth inning (with the bases loaded) from salvaging a contest that was finally lost by only a 12-10 margin. One single pitching breakdown with negative consequences can be isolated across a month-long stretch during pressure-packed tournament competition. Is this actually a signal of Cuban baseball collapse, or more a measure of baseball’s inevitable law of averages? Since the Americans failed to defend their own recent World Cup titles (or to reach the finals in Panama), and since Team USA also ran their own string without a Pan American title to four long decades, perhaps Baseball America would be better served to puzzle over a continued malaise in American baseball (not a slippage in Cuban baseball).
An official press release from IBAF headquarters in Lausanne (Switzerland) accompanying the latest ranking is quick to emphasize the growth of stature for baseball in Europe and such a reading is in large part reasonable. It has been emphasized that Holland is now the first Europe-based team to crack the top five, while European clubs now (also for the first time) hold seven positions among the top twenty-five. But it seems at the same time something of a distortion to claim that “the gains by the European sector reflect a growing balance at the elite international level.” It might instead be noted the top ten list continues to feature four Latin American countries, three Asians entrants, two North American clubs, and but one European entry – the identical balance of the initial three world rankings.
It might also be pointed out here that the surging Netherlands team is comprised in large degree of imported Caribbean ballplayers bred in the Dutch Antilles – a factor which seems to argue more for continued Caribbean dominance than for any European increases in talent level. What is clear nonetheless is that the Asian teams have recently faltered in the rankings and no longer control a majority of the top five slots (with Chinese Taipei now being overhauled by both the Dutch and the Canadians). Also inarguable is the fact that Cuba has managed to maintain its iron-clad grip on first place, despite the chorus of debatable claims that Cuban baseball is now slipping in quality and that the Cubans can no longer dominate as in past eras against the rapidly improving levels of North-American trained professional talent. Cuba’s led over the runner-up Americans actually doubled this time around (from a 32.95 to 62.77 margin).
For those unfamiliar with the IBAF ranking system a refresher course is perhaps in order here. Rankings are compiled on the basis of all IBAF sanctioned tournaments over the course of the previous four years, including both junior and senior level tournament events. (A separate ranking is also now produced for women’s baseball but is not considered here.) Points are assigned on the basis of tournament finishes for each country in each outing, with a weighed system giving added importance to results in more competitive and prestigious events as follows:
Major world championship tournaments with competing teams from five continents carry a multiplication factor of four (4x the points earned): these events including the IBAF World Cup, the World Baseball Classic (MLB), and the IOC Olympic Games (discontinued after 2008).
Minor world championships with teams from three or more continents have a multiplication factor of only one (1x points earned): these events include the IBAF Intercontinental Cup (discontinued after 2010), IBAF “AAA” (18 and under) world championships, IBAF “AA” (16 and under) world championships, FISU world university championships, and world qualifying events with three or more continents competing (such as Olympic qualifying tournaments).
Continental or regional championship tournaments (such as the Pan American Games, European championships, or Asian Games) hold lesser multiplication factors ranging from .25 to 1.00, depending on the level of competition; for example, a tournament which includes at least three countries ranked in the previous year’s “top ten” received a full multiplication factor of one.
With no senior-level international championships on the docket for 2012 (now that baseball has been dropped from the Olympic Games) Cuba’s lead in the poll is likely to stand unchanged until at least the next version (likely in March 2013) of the MLB-sponsored World Baseball Classic.
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.