It seems that this year’s Baseball World Cup tournament could be the last. I suspect that such a decision by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) would have a lot to do with the recent creation of another competition that brings together many of the best players from around the world: the World Baseball Classic.
Cuba has historically dominated the World Cup tournaments, having taken home a total of 25 gold medals, while the United States has trailed closest behind by picking up four.
This was when our team’s lineup could run circles around anyone who stood in their way. However this honor belongs to another era, one in which the participation of professional players was prohibited.
Though that era gave us many victories, what it also did was blind us. And look how by chance, or how by chance it turned out, that while we thought we were invincible in baseball, we dangerously forgot the fundamentals, those details that define and make baseball so rich.
Likewise, we also previously thought of ourselves as a people who had developed in the social sphere though we ignored the fact that our prosperity was due to an economic pact with a power that would soon disappear.
Then came the nineties, when we lost our “wet nurse,” and shortly after we also lost the illusion of being the world’s best in baseball. Being the best in this sport had meant being sovereign or politically sufficient, or at least this is what we let them lead us to believe.
In the nineties the world changed and utopias would become increasingly unattainable. Many ideals disappeared from the horizon and the ways of doing things altered. It was in this context that the IBAF made its first big decision: to allow the entry of professional players into their official events.
In Cuba this caused quite a stir; the schism was about to break. Many questions would be answered but new ones would emerge. Was the “amateur” baseball being played in Cuba better than in the professional leagues?
CHANGES WERE NEEDED
Though at first we weren’t facing Major League players, the clashes with professional minor league lineups (from Japan and the US, as well as other leagues such as the Dominican, Mexican and Puerto Rican ones) evidenced a favorable balance for Cuba.
Notwithstanding, since we didn’t win those games by large margins, it was starting to become increasingly more important to reintroduce training that our baseball program had forgotten, like bunting, stealing bases and other strategic concepts.
It was becoming clear that we didn’t know how to run the bases well, rotate players on the bench or even select the right players for a team. These and other problems had been caused by the way we had been playing, especially in the eighties – “the aluminum age.”
Gradually, countries that hadn’t figured in the world of the baseball elite began to emerge; nations such as Holland, Australia, Mexico, Panama and Canada. Others like Japan, the USA, South Korea, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico were improving their lineups to the point of making a Cuban victory almost a mission impossible.
Then came the first World Baseball Classic…and again the questions. These though were answered satisfactorily in the end. We were in the elite, even in a competition involving a large number of professional stars. And we almost won the tournament!
But I think that this victory as the runner-up in 2006 blinded us a little more. Baseball continued to evolve and there began the mass exodus of Cuban baseball players to the United States. Likewise, our National Baseball Series began to weaken. Though it maintained several of its stars, the level of the lion’s share of its players began to decline.
In the second Classic (2009), our team remained virtually the same (a bad habit on the part of our managers, and one that has cost us dearly). But while our players performed with no inhibitions in the first phase of the qualifying rounds, when they played Japan we appeared even more naked than on the first occasion. We lost twice to them and, though were talking about the team that won both WBCs, it revealed a number of deficiencies.
Another big problem with our team has been our batting. Some people attribute this to a narrow strike zone, or a narrow interpretation of it on the part of the Cuban umpires. Others blame the weak pitching in the Cuban League. Yet despite this, it turns out that in international stadiums, it has been our pitchers who have best risen to the occasion. What a paradox!
I think the main reason is that they don’t bring those batters onto the team who are best suited. They’re wedded to the best known ones, though these players can’t hit. In turn, these same players get too comfortable because they don’t feel any pressure. Nor is the team balanced. We want to grab the fourteen top homerun hitters from the National Series and put the first nine up to bat, but a baseball team doesn’t function like that.
As a result of all of this, the last World Cup that we won was back in 2005. Yet I’m sure that these tournaments are still winnable by our teams, though I can’t figure out how a pitcher from the UK managed to dominate the Cuban team.
THEY GOT SERIOUS THIS TIME
Given the way the game is now played in the Cup, our country’s National Baseball Commission seriously trained a team for the first time in a long time. This has raised hopes among our people, who remain dependent on that “circus” to maintain their illusions.
What we now have is strength, speed, skill, defense, good pitching, balance and above all a coaching staff led by Alfonso Urquiola, who knows very well how to administer all the resources needed for a winning team.
As if this weren’t enough, we had some practice games before the World Cup with quality teams such as those of the Venezuelans, the Puerto Ricans and the Panamanians. For many years our team didn’t train like this, but now we can see them looking good. They’re soberly winning tight games and winning on the mercy rule when they can.
I think that if they continue to operate like this, they won’t have a problem winning what could possibly be the last World Cup in this sport. That would take a lot of pressure off of them and could be pointing to the beginning of a new golden age.
Note: Cuba finished the first round of the 2011 World Cup with a 7-0 record and yesterday won its first second round game 8-7 against the defending World Champion USA.