Diminished Cuban Forces Salvage “Classic” Pride in Tokyo’s Opening Round

Tokyo (March 10, 2017)

A now much-diminished Cuban national squad and a perennial bridesmaid Australian nine hooked up in a dramatic do-or-die Friday showdown in the Tokyo Dome that went a long way toward demonstrating what MLB’s newfangled dozen-year-old and true baseball “world series” is actually all about. Australia has enjoyed preciously few big-league heroes to cheer over the years – utility infielder Craig Shipley and journeyman catcher Dave Nilsson top the slim Aussie list. And while a growing collection of recent stellar Cuban big leaguer headliners like José Abreu, Yoenis Céspedes, Aroldis Chapman and Yasmani Tomás – all “defectors” from the once-proud Cuban baseball system – are now the celebrated pride of Cuban rooters on both sides of the Straits of Florida, they are hardly acknowledged heroes in the eyes of the Cuban Baseball Federation itself. For these two countries, then, it is largely all about international tournament competitions and the defense of the nation’s battle flag.

This time around the stakes couldn’t have been larger and the result could not have better lived up to the pre-game hype. Cuba was facing the embarrassment of a possible first-ever opening-round exit from the MLB showcase world championships. Australia by contrast was seeking a first-ever ticket to the second-round matches; and the often-snake-bit veteran team from “Down Under” was also hopeful of finally ending a nightmare string of oh-so-close and oh-so-painful setbacks suffered at the hands of the Cubans over the past dozen years. None of those previous defeats, however, would prove any more devastating than the one about to unfold here at the Tokyo Dome. Australia outperformed their long-time rival Friday afternoon in every important category, outhitting the Cubans 13-10 and keeping then off the scoreboard in all frames but one. Yet once again it was not enough as the tight game turned on a single devastating blast off the bat of Alfredo Depaigne – a mammoth fly with the bases jammed in the fifth off an errant fastball delivery from highly regarded Minnesota Twins southpaw prospect Lachlan Wells that landed deep in the left-center field seats and was yet one more wrenching nail in the Australian coffin delivered by an all-too-often opportunistic Cuban offensive. 

Longtime Aussie manager Jon Deeble – so many times victimized by the Cubans in international venues – summed up the odd nature of this dramatic match in his post-game press conference. Deeble rightly claimed that his team seemed to have the upper hand in every aspect of the game but one – they simply didn’t hit when it counted, squandering a number of middle and late inning chances against a pair of Cuban relievers (Yovanni Yera and Vladimir García) and leaving 15 runners stranded in the process. Cuba by stark contrast got the single big swing of the bat when it most needed it. With bitter good humor Deeble remarked that he was still counting the days until Despaigne and Frederich Cepeda – two noted Australia killers – would at long last finally retire. The Australian skipper reflected back in particular on the Cepeda extra-inning blast that sunk his team in the 2007 World Cup opener in Taiwan, as well as Despaigne’s first-inning World Cup smash in Grosseto back in 2009 – both round-trippers providing slim 2-1 Cuban victory margins in games the Aussie’s previously let slip through their fingers.

For his own part, Cuban star Despaigne also reminisced in his post-game interview session about the special nature of what had to be one of the most memorable of his numerous clutch career smashes. Despaigne remains (along with Cepeda, who played briefly with the Tokyo Giants a couple years back) extremely popular here in Japan where he performed the past several seasons as a top slugger with the Lotte Marines and where he has just penned a lucrative three-year $16 million deal with the Pacific League Fukuoka Soft Bank Hawks. The latter pact now makes him one of the highest paid stars in the Nippon circuit. Each of his plate appearances here in Tokyo this week has been greeted by more lusty cheers than those received by any other non-Japanese hometown star. And several of Despaigne’s most memorable heroics have unfolded right here in the Asian baseball capital. He was quick to suggest that today’s game-winning smash ranked near the top but was still outdistanced by a 2010 walk-off extra-inning game-clincher against the Americans in the gold medal match of the 2010 World University Games.

But with all due respect to the slugger’s own personal memories, no Despaigne swing was ever any more significant that the one witnessed today. The historic importance of this game for the Cuban forces can hardly be exaggerated. For starters the win salvaged a crucial remaining piece of recently dwindling Cuban baseball pride, and it did so at precisely the most opportune possible moment. With this victory Cuba remains one of a mere quartet of countries reaching the second round in all four WBC Classics – still sharing that distinction with Japan (the only team to each the finals in all three earlier tournaments), Puerto Rico, and Team USA. It also kept the Cubans in the rare company of but five countries that so far have accumulated a minimum of 15 overall WBC victories across three-plus tournaments (the others being Japan, Korea, the Dominicans, and Puerto Rico). This is no mean feat given the severely depleted Cuban roster than has now been gutted by a floodtide of more than 200 ballplayer “defections” since the last Classic. The 2013 Team Cuba edition that also bowed out in the second round here in Tokyo, for one example, headlined six of eight starting position players (José Abreu, Yulieski Gourriel, Erisbel Arruebarrena, Yasmani Tomás, Guillermo Heredia, and José Miguel Fernández) who have all subsequently either enjoyed big league stardom or inked big league contracts.

Alfredo Despaigne

This particular dramatic Cuban victory was also a highly personal one for this individual author and long-time follower of Cuban teams battling in international venues. It most assuredly has to rank at (or at least very near) the top among more than a dozen heart-stopping Cuban tournament wins that I have been fortunate enough to personally witness over the years from the press box during my nearly two-decade-long rollercoaster Cuban baseball sojourn. The select list provided below could perhaps be easily doubled in length – stretched out to include some monumental crushing if still dramatic losses like the one suffered against the Americans at the 2009 IBAF World Cup finals in Nettuno (Italy) or the rain-soaked 2011 Gold Medal defeat in Panama City at the hands of the upstart Dutch – but if pressed for brevity, I would include here at least ten special games making the final cut.

This Author’s Top Ten Most Memorable Team Cuba Games

1- March 2017, Tokyo – Despaigne’s grand slam keeps Cuba’s string of second-round WBC appearances alive.

2- February 2015, San Juan – Yulieski Gourriel homers late in the game against Mexico to spur Cuba’s unlikely comeback championship in the Caribbean Series.

3- March 3006, San Juan – Gourriel’s rain-soaked eighth-inning relay throw to the plate to cut down Pudge Rodríguez preserves a game that launches Cuba into the first-ever final WBC round in San Diego.

4- September 2009, Florence – Héctor Olivera is the hitting star of the victory over Canada that moves Cuba into the Europe-based IBAF World Cup finals versus Team USA.

5- September 2005, Haarlem – A rain-soaked and fog-plagued 15-2 super knockout victory over Panama launches Cuba into the IBAF World Cup gold medal finale versus Korea.

6- September 2009, Grosseto – Despaigne’s first inning two-run blast holds up as Cuba edges Australia 2-1 in the IBAF World Cup final-round opening game.

7- March 2009, Mexico City – Yosvani Peraza’s dramatic two-run pinch-hit homer vaults Cuba past Australia in a dramatic and crucial WBC opening-round matchup.

8- September 2009, Barcelona – Yosvani Peraza reprises his WBC heroics with a second late-inning pinch homer (this time versus upstart Spain) allowing the Cubans to escape the World Cup first round unscathed. 

9- March 2009, San Diego – An improbable inaugural WBC Cinderella Story is capped by the upset of the powerful Dominicans in the semifinals, a game salvaged by stellar pitching from Yadel Marti (starter) and Pedro Luis Lazo in relief.

10- July 1999, Winnipeg – Cuba edges Canada by a single run behind starter José Ibar and closer Pedro Lazo to reach Pan Am Game finals versus Team USA and also clinch a berth in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The memorable ninth inning of that match included the chaos of an anti-Castro supporter rushing the field and disrupting the tense baseball action.

As in the past two Classics, Cuba’s march into the tournament’s second round seems likely again to remain something of a final hurrah prefacing rather quick exit against intensified round-two competition. The toughness of second-round matches was quickly demonstrated in the opener against a still-undefeated club of American-born pros nominally representing the nation of Israel and boasting the top spot against Pool A rivals in Seoul. The uniform label should not have misled anyone since this patchwork team marking Israel’s tournament debut was in point of fact (along with Italy) one of three “American” teams in the field. Starter Jason Marquis sat on the sidelines during summer 2016 action but earlier amassed 124 wins over a 15-year journeyman big league career split among nine clubs and highlighted by a slot on the 2006 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. The lineup of Jewish-heritage players also featured former big league slugger Ike Davis (32 homers with the 2012 Mets), cup-of-coffee big league first sacker Nate Freiman, and one-time stellar Atlanta Braves catching prospect Ryan Lavarnway. Marquis was more than adequate through the first 5.2 frames allowing no damage outside of Despaigne’s third homer of the week that give Cuba a temporary early 1-0 advantage. But a strong Israeli bullpen contingent of eventual winner Zack Thornton (AAA Las Vegas), second-round roster upgrade Brad Goldberg (AAA Charlotte) and hard-throwing Josh Zeid (AAA Las Vegas) allowed but a single harmless base knock across the final three frames. Cuban starter Noelvis Entenza was stronger than in his debut start versus Japan (yielding a single hit and a lone tying tally in the fourth) but a two-run uprising against southpaw reliever Yoanni Yera (who has suffered both Cuban defeats) provided the difference in the 4-1 setback. Outfielder Blake Gailen (a former AAA prospect with Toronto) led the offensive thrust for the victors with a two-run double and catcher Lavarnway contributed a pair of safeties, and second Israeli double, and an additional RBI in the low-scoring affair. 

Team Australia after the loss

Remaining on the horizon for the underdog Cubans in this year’s event are the multi-talented Asian pool favorites representing host Japan, and a loaded Dutch squad that returns pretty much the same lineup that ended Cuba’s run here in Tokyo four years back. It will be a tough test and after the round-opening loss to Israel about the best the Cubans might hope for is a spoiler role that might sink of chances of one of those remaining clubs from reaching Los Angeles. The best shot may come tomorrow night versus the Japanese who come off an exhausting extra-inning dual with the Dutch here last night that severely tested the Nippon bullpen and forced rookie manager Hiroki Kokubo to burn through seven of his relief pitchers. Cuba’s hopes will rest on starter Vladimir Baños who was brilliant against China in his debut, as well as veteran relievers Vlad García and Miguel Lahera who so far have offered the only stability in a bullpen that has been the team’s major weak point. The Dutch who have dominated the Cubans in recent years (even against far stronger island teams in the 2011 IBAF World Cup and the 2013 WBC Tokyo second round) will likely provide an even stiffer challenge, especially given the prospect that the Hollanders will most likely desperately need a Wednesday victory over Cuba in order to punch their own ticket for the finals in Dodger Stadium.

At this point perhaps a final note is perhaps necessary on what this writer sees as the largest flaw in the current World Baseball Classic structure. The presence of three teams with full rosters (or nearly complete rosters) of American-born and trained players, most of them affiliated with MLB or organized baseball, severely subtracts from any pretense at presenting a truly legitimate international tournament field of the type earlier found in Olympic Baseball matches or IBAL World Cup events that the MLB Classic has now replaced. The team dressed up in the colors of Israel boasts but a single product of the Israeli Baseball Association (Israel Professional League), rarely used pitcher Shlomo Lipetz (a player dropped from the club for the second round). The Israeli headliners are such MLB veterans as first baseman Ike Davis (32 homers for the Mets in 2012), pitcher Jason Marquis (winner and loser of more than 100 big league games), and former Twins and Athletics outfielder Sam Fuld; also in the fold are top MLB prospects Corey Baker (pitcher, AAA Memphis), pitcher Scott Feldman (big league appearances last summer with Houston and Toronto), and catcher Ryan Lavarnway (AAA Gwinnett in the Atlanta Braves organization). For its part, Team Italy boasts a bit more international flavor, with seven roster spots occupied by natives of Caribbean countries claiming Italian ancestral roots; and there are eight native Italians on the 32-man club roster. But 16 Americans staff the bulk of the lineup, including eight cup-of-coffee 2016 big leaguers (themselves matching the total native Italian contingent). It is something more than a witticism, then, to remark that the Americans can claim three teams in this spring’s four-pool WBC field.

Of course this is the bargain that MLB honchos fashioned in order to present the appearances of an international spectacle imitating soccer’s wildly popular World Cup event that was both the model and the inspiration behind the World Baseball Classic from the outset. The motive from the inception was to promote one single element of MLB’s boast about “internationalizing” the sport – the showcasing of the many international imports (especially from Caribbean nations) that today make up more than a quarter of the sport’s on-field work force. But little has been done, by contrast, to recognize or foster another important aspect of baseball “globalization” which is the growth and promotion of the sport in those many countries who have more recently adopted the game (including those in Europe, Africa and second-level Asian ball-playing nations like Korea, Chinese Taipei, Australia and China) but are not already baseball hotbeds featuring droves of recognizable big leaguers.

The carefully crafted promotions seen on video boards in WBC venues have always been something like the following: “look at these foreign stars who may be wearing their own homeland colors today but who next month will be performing in an MLB stadium near you” – there is little or no promotion of stories relating the sport’s history or growth in any of the countries that MLB executives and the bulk of North American fans see only as exotic foreign outposts ripe for harvesting future big league talent. The only small vestiges of what was once a truly Olympic-style version of the game existing outside the corporate control of the MLB enterprise remain with the Japanese and Cuban entries, the only two squads in this year’s event that still field rosters of non-MLB-affiliated players and thus truly represent domestic baseball leagues operating on their own native shores. And it is perhaps no accident that those two outlier squads play their opening-round games as far as possible away from the bulk of ticket-buying North American MLB fans.

 

Peter Bjarkman has been covering BaseballdeCuba.com for 10 years with his columns and on-the-scene reports. Peter is a senior writer and author of the popular MLB blog, "Bjarkman's Latino and Cuban League Baseball History Page." Bjarkman is a winner of THE SPORTING NEWS-SABR Baseball Research Award, and a finalist for SPITBALL magazine's CASEY AWARD (for "Baseball Book of the Year"). His 1994 study, BASEBALL WITH A LATIN BEAT: A HISTORY OF THE LATIN AMERICAN GAME (McFarland), earned the Macmillan-SABR Baseball Research Award, also this year Peter won the Henry Chadwick Award for his contributions to baseball. Bjarkman's A HISTORY OF CUBAN BASEBALL, 1864-2006 is considered the seminal book on the Cuban national pastime. Peter will be covering the 2017 World Baseball Classic for BaseballdeCuba.com directly from Japan.