03/05/13 - THE NEW YORK TIMES - High Hopes for Cuban Baseball, but Challenges Ahead
By BEN STRAUSS
HAVANA - On Sunday, the morning after Cuba's 5-2 triumph against Brazil in
Fukuoka, Japan, its opening game in this year's World Baseball Classic,
Sigfredo Barros ventured to the tree-lined Central Park here to partake in
the musings of La Peña del Parque Central, a group of men who gather each
day to debate baseball.
A 67-year-old with a white push broom mustache and an easy sense of humor,
Barros is a 42-year veteran baseball writer for Granma, the official
newspaper of Cuba's Communist Party. Among the country's most passionate
fans, he is something of a rock star. He was immediately surrounded by
dozens of the men, who were eager to engage in the back and forth, creating
a scene that might exist in the United States if sports radio were suddenly
converted to face-to-face exchanges and no one ever hung up the phone. The
opinions flew at Barros, seemingly all at once.
"Brazil was easy! Wait until we have to play Japan."
"The lineup is thin. We have no pitching!"
"A win is a win. Let's be happy today."
After 15 minutes, Barros lighted a cigarette and politely extricated
himself from the group. "This tournament is the most important we have for
the team and the country," he said later. "It is like the World Cup for
soccer in Brazil."
In Cuba, where the domestic league, or National Series, is strictly amateur
and players must defect to play in Major League Baseball, the national team
is the pinnacle of the sport. The World Baseball Classic is a rare chance
to compete against the world's best talent, whipping this baseball-mad
country into a fervor.
Yet beneath the shell of excitement, this year's tournament comes at a
challenging moment for Cuban baseball. In addition to the well-documented
defections of players to the United States, there are also worries that
diluted talent in the National Series is not properly preparing players for
the national team. And with international tournaments like the Olympics
eliminating baseball, there are suddenly fewer marquee international
amateur tournaments in which to compete. Taken together, the contributing
factors have created concern, if not quite a crisis, and put even more
emphasis on the Classic.
"Baseball players grow like the grass in Cuba," Barros said. "But it is a
very interesting question to think about the future."
With most citizens in communist Cuba earning no more than the equivalent of
$20 each month, gathering to view the Classic in bars and restaurants is a
difficult economic proposition. Most watched Saturday night's game at home,
where MLB Network's video feed was available, but without any of the
commercials and dubbed with play-by-play from Cuban announcers. It left the
usually bustling streets of Havana quiet for a weekend night.
In the inaugural tournament, in 2006, Cuba surprised many pundits with its
run to the championship round before losing to Japan. In 2009, the team
advanced to the second round of group play.
Barros, who did not travel to Japan because of two knee operations he had
last year, turned wide-eyed and giddy remembering the 2006 tournament.
"It was hard for people in Cuba with heart trouble," he said.
Alexei Ramirez, who played on the 2006 team and is now a shortstop with the
Chicago White Sox, recalled returning to Havana and being met by government
officials and later by Fidel Castro after a parade down the Malecón, a
boulevard that runs along the Gulf coast.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Ramirez said with a wide smile.
"There was nothing like it."
But Ramirez, like several other Cuban stars from past Classics, including
Yoenis Cespedes of Oakland and Aroldis Chapman of Cincinnati, defected and
is now in the major leagues. He is barred from returning to his home
country, much less playing for it.
As one of the members of the Peña lamented, "Imagine our team with Alexei,
Chapman and Cespedes."
According to the Web site BaseballdeCuba.com, 169 Cubans have played in the
major leagues. That includes 22 defectors who have made their debut since
2000, compared with 10 in the 1990s, suggesting that the path to the United
States for ballplayers is becoming more attractive.
"The younger guys have been more and more likely to leave," said Peter
Bjarkman, the author of "A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006." "There
isn't as much depth. There are still great stars, but the overall quality
of the Cuban league is down."
This year, the National Series is attempting to remedy that by reducing the
number of teams for the second half of the season, to 8 from 16. When the
Cuban players return from the Classic, only the top eight teams in the
standings will compete, drafting the best players from teams that have been
On an island with a population of 11 million, there has been much debate
over whether 16 teams - one located in each province, and the municipality
of the Isla de la Juventud - is practical for preparing players for the
national team. Some have pointed out that before the Castro-led revolution
in 1959, the Cuban professional league consisted of only four teams,
although they played almost exclusively in Havana.
"It is an important decision for the Cuban game," Barros said. "This will
help us elevate the play of our national team, which is the most
But where, exactly, the national team will play has recently become another
hurdle. Baseball was removed from the Olympics for the 2012 Games, and the
Baseball World Cup, run by the International Baseball Federation, was
discontinued in 2011 (there is hope for an iteration of the tournament to
begin in 2015). The Caribbean Series would seem an ideal fit for the Cuban
national team, but the team did not compete this year because it could not
afford what was said to be a $1 million entrance fee.
Still, such worries have done little to dampen the enthusiasm for this
year's Classic. The fanatics here speak in reverence of Frederich Cepeda,
the outfielder who was one of two unanimous all-tournament selections at
the 2009 Classic, and Alfredo Despaigne, who set a Cuban league record with
36 home runs last season.
Cuba followed its win over Brazil with a 12-0 thumping of China the next
day (the game began at 2:30 a.m. local time Monday), clinching a place in
the second round - and raising hopes just a little higher.
"There are some very strong teams," Barros said, guarding against too much
optimism when asked about Cuba's chances to win the Classic.
The Peña, too, was back in session Monday, huddled next to the statue of
José Martí, a leader in the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain in
the 19th century. The morning sun soon peeked through the cloud cover,
brightening the impressive baroque facade of Havana's Grand Theater, which
overlooks the park.
Voices rose and arms gesticulated wildly as lineup changes were questioned
and pitching rotations discussed. Joaquin Vizquel, a member of the Peña,
stood a few feet from the main scrum. As he watched his countrymen, he
said, "I want Cuba to win so badly, and I think it is possible."
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