CARY, N.C.—USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team has faced some great Cuban players before. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was USA Baseball’s top program, and in the era before professionals dominated international play, American collegians would face the likes of Cuban stars Omar Linares, Orestes Kindelan, Pedro Luis Lazo and Jose Contreras.
An annual friendly series between the two countries ended in 1996 and resumed in 2012, in an era when more and more Cuban players, at younger and younger ages, leave the island in search of MLB riches. And in the “friendly” era, the CNT has faced plenty of future big leaguers; the 2012 Cuban team included Jose Abreu, Yulieski Gourriel, Rusney Castillo, Dalier Hinojosa, Aledmis Diaz, Guillermo Heredia and Odrisamer Despaigne. (Those were the Cuban spellings of their names at the time.)
Now in 2017, the Cuban national team is not quite its former self, thanks to so many of those defections draining top talent off the island. Cuba didn’t make it out of the first round of the World Baseball Classic this March, and the national team comes to North Carolina to face the College National Team coming off a stint in the independent Can-Am League. Cuba’s national team went 5-16 against Can-Am competition.
If that seems like a far cry from the heyday of Linares and Lazo, well, it is. But the five-game series remains a high point on the CNT schedule because of the tradition of the series, the clash of cultures both on and off the baseball field and the pride the Cuban players and coaches still have in their program.
“We’re excited to play the USA,” Cuban manager Roger Machado said via translator Pete Cacheiro. “It’s been my privilege to manage the Cuban teams the last three years against the USA, and it will be a great experience for both teams. Both will be excited to hear ‘play ball’ tomorrow.”
Machado noted the CNT will be a significant step up in talent from the Can-Am teams that outscored Cuba 146-87 in 21 games.
“In the Can-Am League, many of the players had reached Double-A or Triple-A but not the major leagues, and don’t have the possibility of getting to the major leagues,” he said through the translator, when asked the difference between the Can-Am and CNT portion of his schedule. “These college kids have incredible talent. We know many of these young guys will go on to be in the majors.”
Higinio Velez, the Cuban federation president and former team manager who won silver in the 2000 Olympics and gold in 2004, added that the Cubans enjoy playing the American college players every year, and that is should be a “great spectacle.”
“Go back to when only (amateurs) were on the national teams,” Velez said via translator, “and we have had many important games, many times where we have had to fight the Collegiate National Team over many gold medals.”
The U.S. team, managed this year by John Savage (UCLA coach), has won seven of its first eight games, including the first three games of a four-game series with Taiwan that ends Saturday night in Durham, N.C. The Cuba series will include three games in Cary at the National Training Complex sandwiched around one in Durham and a July 4 matchup in Charlotte, N.C.
Clemson slugger Seth Beer, who was on the team last summer and returns to the CNT in 2017, got to go to Cuba last year and is happy to get another chance to play the Cubans, whom the U.S. edged three games to two in last year’s five-game series. Keston Hiura (UC Irvine) hit an eighth-inning, pinch-hit homer in the rubber match last year while Ricky Tyler Thomas (Fresno State) pitched 5.2 scoreless innings in relief.
“We play a different sort of style for the game,” Beer said. “It’s unique for the Cubans and for the U.S. I’ve experience it, and I’ve tried to tell our guys to have fun and realize what an honor it is to be able to participate as an athlete or as a coach in this series.”
The Cuban team includes several young prospects such as outfielders Victor Mesa and Yoelkis Cespedes, younger brother of Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. While both players are talented, they struggled against Can-Am pitchers, with Cespedes striking out 25 times in 77 at-bats while Mesa had to come on strong to post a .561 OPS in 84 at-bats.