By Matt Meyers
January 17, 2006
Major League Baseball can breathe a sigh of relief. Cuba will be allowed into the World Baseball Classic after all.
After originally rejecting their application to participate in the Classic, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control did an about face on Friday and reversed its previous decision to allow Cuba in the tournament. This decision came after IBAF threatened to strip its sanction of the event, and some participating countries threatened to boycott, if Cuba was not admitted into the field.
“It became such a big issue that if Cuba was not going to play, I don’t think there was going to be a tournament,” said Milton Jamail, author of Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball. “The international rules are such and the solidarity in Latin America, if Cuba was not going to play certainly Puerto Rico, the Dominican (Republic) and Venezuela were not going to play.”
Now that Cuba is on board, it raises a host of new questions regarding its involvement. For decades, Cuba has dominated international baseball, but the Cubans have never had to play against major leaguers. The Classic will finally provide a proper barometer for the quality of the Cuban national team.
“I am not going to say that this team is the equivalent of the U.S. and Dominican rosters; their team is not of that quality,” Peter Bjarkman, co-author of Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball, said. “On the other hand, their starting lineup is a major league quality team. I think they are better now then they were in the 1990s when they had (Omar) Linares and crew, because I think their pitching is better.”
If so, Cuba's pitching will be amazing, considering the Cuban teams of the 1990s featured, at various times, current big leaguers like Danys Baez, Jose Contreras, Livan Hernandez and Orlando Hernandez as well as former big leaguers such as Rolando Arrojo; however, the current Cuban squad is young and features many players who have yet to establish a reputation on an international stage.
This past September at the World Cup in the Netherlands, Cuba cruised to a gold medal as it went 8-0 in pool play and outscored Panama and Korea 18-2 in the semi-finals and finals. Cuba also rocked Team USA in an 11-3 romp. While Cuba was not facing the top players in the world, it basically toyed with its competition, outscoring opponents by 55 runs.
On the mound, the Cubans are led by righthanders Dany Betancourt and closer Pedro Luis Lazo, who combined to throw a four-hitter over Korea to win gold at the World Cup. In 17 innings in that tournament, Lazo was 2-0, 0.54 with 27 strikeouts.
“In any close game, they are going to have a chance because of Lazo,” Bjarkman said.
Adiel Palma is veteran lefthander who will likely be a workhorse for Cuba because of his vast experience in international play. At the World Cup, he was 2-0, 3.38 with 21 strikeouts in 13 innings. Yunieski Maya is a young righthander who might be the best young prospect in Cuba’s Serie Nacional. He features a lively low 90s fastball to go with a plus curve and posted a 1.23 ERA in seven innings in the Netherlands.
Offensively, they are led by shortstop Eduardo Paret, third baseman Yuliesky Gourriel and DH Michel Enriquez. At the World Cup, Paret was hitting .600-2-8 through 19 at-bats before going down with a knee injury. The slack was easily picked up, however, by Enriquez (500-1-20 in 46 at-bats), and Gourriel (.319-8-19 in 47 at-bats). Gourriel is considered the best prospect on the team.
Despite their impressive performance in the Netherlands, the Cubans will be doubted until they beat the absolute best in the world.
“Cuba playing against amateurs or (minor leaguers) is one thing, playing against the best teams in the world, I don’t think they are in the same league,” Jamail said “I think most people will say, ‘This kid who plays third base for Cuba is really good, but A-Rod is playing for the US.'”
Cuba has dominated international baseball for so long that their international luster could certainly be tarnished if they struggle against big leaguers. This reason alone may have made it understandable if they did not want to participate, but the United States not wanting them to play ended up working in their favor.
“They have manipulated the situation to bring all the attention on Cuban baseball. It was an ingenious move for political reasons, and they have always been good at doing that,” Bjarkman said. “Clearly they decided there was more advantage to doing that than there was to staying out."
Another bi-product of Cuba’s participation that is surely to be discussed is the potential for their players to defect during the tournament. Livan Hernandez and Contreras are just two of many that have left Cuba’s team while on the road for the riches of the major leagues. Bjarkman, however, insists this is not a problem.
“Yes, players are going to leave and players have left,” Bjarkman said. “But they are not paralyzed by that fear. That is not going to prevent them from playing international tournaments."
And for now, neither is the U.S. Treasury Department.