Peter C. Bjarkman
HAVANA TIMES – The World Baseball Classic has now crowned a novel champion, with the Dominican Republic recovering from its 2009 first-round ouster to become the first country to sweep through the WBC field undefeated.
Japan has finally relinquished its iron grip on the MLB Classic title for the first time in the brief three-session span of the tournament. And Cuba, despite the stark disappointment of not reach the final round in San Francisco, has surprisingly also held onto its top world ranking and actually stretched its slim lead over the runner-up Americans by 21 points.
These are the realities reflected in the latest 2013 (Post-WBC) men’s world baseball rankings released this morning on the official website of the IBAF (International Baseball Federation), the sport’s ruling international body.
While few Americans pay any heed to these IBAF polls (or are even aware of their existence), the bi-yearly rankings have been long trumpeted by the Cuban Baseball Federation as a badge of honor and as one important measure of the successes of an exclusively domestic (no foreign players) and non-capitalist baseball system.
It was widely speculated that by failing to reach the exclusive “final four” group in this year’s Classic Cuba would finally be toppled from its long-held top slot and thus suffer a double-whammy to its slipping international baseball prestige.
Such a tumble might well have been the case had the MLB-packed USA lineup not stumbled at the identical juncture in the tournament, also failing to get out of the WBC second round for the second time in three tries.
A Cuban slip in the polls might also have been the result had Japan captured a third crown in San Francisco, or had it been Chinese Taipei and not The Netherlands that ambushed the Cuban forces in Tokyo. What finally played in the islander’s favor was the fact that three countries advancing to the finals all came from much further down the ladder in last fall’s most recent IBAF polling.
The current IBAF tally has now replaced the points earned at the 2009 WBC with those amassed from this year’s third edition. The biggest gainers were the Dominicans under manager Tony Peña who substituted the 55.02 points earned via the 2009 first-round debacle with 300.00 points won as this year’s champions.
The upshot was a huge leap from thirteenth to seventh – the country’s first appearance in the Top Ten since polling began back in 2008. WBC III sub-champion Puerto Rico also bounced upward from twelfth to eighth, while The Netherlands (with a first Classic final-round appearance) and Chinese Taipei (winner of the November 2012 Asian WBC Qualifier) both edged into the prestigious Top Five for the first time.
Other noteworthy team movements in the recent poll involved Italy, South Korea and Brazil. The latter country finally cracked the Top 20 (despite a first-round WBC ouster) on the strength of a November victory in the Caribbean Classic Qualifier. A perennial fixture near the top of the rankings (fourth last time and third a year earlier), the Koreans tumbled five slots after failing to make it out of WBC Pool B in Taichung.
And despite a dramatic underdog showing by the game Italians that lifted the surprising Europeans into this year’s WBC second round, nonetheless Italy actually slipped a few notches in stature (and was bumped out of the Top Ten) largely because both the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans charged past them by reaching the San Francisco finals.
While both the Cubans and Americans escaped further loss of prestige by hanging on to the top IBAF slots, those leads now stand very much in jeopardy. The next poll will be released in mid-fall, and for that next ranking all tournament results from 2009 will be scrubbed.
The upshot is that both Cuba and the USA (finalists in the 2009 World Cup in Europe) will see 250 points erased from their current totals, enough of a loss to likely lift Japan into the driver’s seat for the first time. The downside at the moment for Cuba is that it has no top level (and thus potential point-producing) tournament events remain on this year’s IBAF calendar.
The formulas for determining these rankings are quite complex since they involve not only a given team’s finish in a sanctioned event, but also a multiplier factor based on the prestige of an individual tournament and the quality (rankings) of the various countries entered in that particular event.
Cuba’s increased margin over the Americans in this latest rankings came about largely because last fall’s Asian tour (Thunder Series with the Taiwan national squad and Samurai Japan competitions with the Nippon all-star squad) were both IBAF sanctioned point-earning events. For a detailed explanation of how this system actually works one should turn to the IBAF website found at www.ibaf.org.
(*) Peter Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, past and present. He has reported on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team as senior writer for www.BaseballdeCuba.com during the past six-plus years and is currently writing a book on the history of Cuba’s post-revolution national team.